Tag Archives: memories

Exploring Key West

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We woke Thursday morning to find ourselves docked in Key West.

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With a day full of sightseeing ahead of us, we ate a quick breakfast and prepared to disembark. We walked off the ship, ready to explore the city of Key West, the first stop on our five day cruise.

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Key West is an island city in the Straits of Florida. The city lies at the southernmost end of U.S. Route 1, the longest north–south road in the United States.

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Key West is the southernmost city in the contiguous United States and the westernmost island connected by highway in the Florida Keys.

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The island is about 4 miles long and 1 mile wide, with a total land area of 4.2 square miles. Duval Street, its main street, is 1.1 miles in length in its 14-block-long crossing from the Gulf of Mexico to the Straits of Florida and the Atlantic Ocean. Key West is about 95 miles north of Cuba at their closest points.

The island is popular for its eccentric, wild and laid-back vibe that is highly inviting to most cruise passengers. So popular is the island that it has provided seasonal homes to notable figures such as the 33rd president and one of the world’s most prolific writers.

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With the exception of Toby, the rest of us had never visited this southernmost Floridian city. Toby had visited Key West as a teenager, and had fond memories of the area. We were excited to take in the sites and learn more about this unique city. We decided that the best excursion to accomplish this was a city-wide scavenger hunt. We thought it would be a great way to learn about the area in a fun and engaging way.

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We walked to the starting location of the scavenger hunt and logged onto the website that began our hunt.

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By using a cell phone, we were given clues to follow and puzzles to decode that led us on a three hour foot race around the island.

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We had to seek out monuments and places of interest by relying on general knowledge, problem solving, keen observation and by utilizing the knowledge of the locals.

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It was a blast, and we were a pretty great team.

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It helped that we had a myriad of strengths between our team members, with some serving as the navigators, some were especially good at the puzzles that had to be decoded, while other’s had a strong knowledge of US history that we could tap into.

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Then there were our extroverts who boldly approached anyone and everyone to help weigh in on the questions we were seeking answers to.

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As we moved around the island, seeking out the next clue at the next location we learned much about the island’s history and soaking in its unique culture.

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Combining 19th-century history with its vast tropical charms, Key West is a haven for adventurers and historians alike.

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Its unique beauty mashes together brightly colored picturesque colonial houses with lush tropical gardens.

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Its narrow streets are lined with vintage shops, eateries, and watering holes. The coastline as well is breathtaking and is graced by the azure waters of the Atlantic and Gulf stream that boards the island on either side.

And then there are the chickens…

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Can we talk about the chickens?! They wander the streets like they own the place, something I found charming but that Gracie found terrifying.

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They are her greatest phobia. But like them or not, they are definitely part of the Key West ambiance!

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As we walked around Key West, the scavenger hunt clues led us to the following fascinating locations:

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If mystery is your thrill, visit Key West Cemetery to learn the interesting part of the town’s former times. The gravestones of fallen soldiers and townsfolk go into depth about the life and death of the individual. Epitaphs like “I told you I was sick” among others can be traced in this location, making it a twisted but interesting fun thing to explore. Here we had to seek out certain tombstones then add up the combined years of life to unlock our next clue.

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Key West, Florida, has a wild nightlife. One of its most iconic bars includes Sloppy Joes. Sloppy Joe is an old vintage bar that brags of Ernest Hemmingway as a longtime patron. Here we had to figure out whose picture was on the wooden sign out front. (It was Earnest Hemmingway.)

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Then we headed over to the Hemmingway House, an 1851 Spanish colonial building that hosted one of the world’s greatest writers of all time. The most intriguing thing about this home is that the famous writer lived here for almost a decade.

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The house is located in a picturesque, lush, peaceful environment and is easy to see why Ernest Hemmingway was inspired to write some of his masterpieces here.

Another home that required our attention was the Little White House. This home was originally a naval station’s command headquarters during World War 1 and World War 2. Harry Truman, the 33rd US president, called this house, home for several winters. Truman visited Florida 11 times and used to reside in this little white house. Our mission at this location was to figure out what other U.S. presidents had visited the Little White House.

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Our hunt led us to another iconic location. This one however was not historical but rather culinary.

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Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shoppe is one of these popular restaurant destinations and has been for over 27 years. Being a signature dessert for Key West, Florida, Key Lime Pie is a taste visitors don’t want to miss!

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We entered Kermits with the mission of solving the riddle asking us to name the ingredients in a key lime pie, but ended up doing some shopping and spending time loving on Pirate, the shop dog.

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We continued our hunt, seeking out 20 different locations by answering 20 different clues, to win the hunt…Woo hoo!

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We ended up returning to Kermit’s at the end of our hunt to indulge in one of their famous Key Lime Pies.

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We just couldn’t leave the Keys without tasting their most iconic dishes. It was AMAZING! Best Key Lime Pie I have ever eaten!

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We were done at 2:00 and had until 4:00 before we had to be back on the cruise ship. We debated as to what to do with our remaining time. Tyler and Braden were eager to get back on the ship so they could get in the pool and cool off. That sounded good to Zach too, so he took the boys back to the ship.

Toby expressed a desire to revisit an attraction that left an impression on him as a teenage boy: Mel Fisher’s Treasures.

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There is a well-known treasure hunter called Mel Fisher, who made the discovery of “Atocha” the sunken vessels.

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Nuestra Señora de Atocha (Spanish: Our Lady of Atocha) was a Spanish treasure galleon and the most widely-known vessel of a fleet of ships that sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. At the time of her sinking, Nuestra Señora de Atocha was heavily laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, and indigo from Spanish ports at Cartagena and Porto Bello in New Granada (present-day Colombia and Panama, respectively) and Havana, bound for Spain. 

Beginning in 1969, American treasure hunters Mel Fisher, Finley Ricard and a team of sub-contractors, funded by investors and others in a joint venture, searched the sea bed for Nuestra Señora de Atocha for sixteen and a half years. In 1980, Fisher had earlier recovered portions of the wrecked cargo of the sister ship Santa Margarita. He also proposed the idea to several other potential helpers, who were discouraged by the fact that this dangerous professional diving job would be paid at minimum wage unless the ship could be found. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha wreck and its mother lode of silver, gold and emeralds was finally discovered in July 1985. 

The treasure is on display at Mel Fisher’s Treasures, a place Toby was eager to visit again, so he and Grace headed to the treasure museum for a daddy/daughter date.

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One of my bucket list items was a visit to Southernmost Point Monument. It was a 25 minute walk from the port, but despite the hot and humid weather, we thought it was worth the hike!

After all, how else do you let the rest of the world know you have been to Key West? One must take a photo of onesself at the Southernmost Point Monument. This monument is a giant buoy built in the ’80s to represent the southernmost point of the United States.

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Molly and Rusty opted to join me. We enjoyed our stroll, then patiently waited in line for our chance to snap one of these iconic photos.

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We returned to the ship with 30 minutes to spare.

It was a beautiful day in a beautiful city. I fell in love with Key West and hope to return again for a visit someday!

Christmas Magic in Wooster

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It was like something from a Christmas card or a Hallmark movie. The streets were lit with Christmas lights as hundreds of neighbors and friends came out to celebrate the start of the Christmas season with Christmas cookies and holiday festivities in downtown Wooster.

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A few weeks prior to the event my parents invited Grace and I to come to the Homestead for the weekend. As an adult I find myself managing many roles and wearing many hats so the invitation to come and simply be a daughter was a gift and a blessed reprieve from life.

We were invited to visit on the fourth Friday of the month so as to enjoy Wooster’s light up night. Grace and I were unprepared for the delight we would find as we joined Mimi and Pop Pop for a stroll down Main Street.

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The first thing that we noticed upon our arrival downtown was the sheer number of residents that had come out for the event. The weather worked to the city’s advantage with comfortable temperatures and zero precipitation or wind marring the festivities, making it ideal for a nighttime stroll.

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The roads downtown were closed off to traffic allowing pedestrians to roam freely through the streets, enjoying the various Christmas displays in the shop windows.

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Many of the stores went all out, even creating live displays to draw visitors to their store fronts.

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Each store beckoned visitors in with the promise of hot cocoa and cookies while they did a little Christmas shopping.

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The entire event felt like a scene from The Christmas Story, and we felt as though we had stepped back in time to a decade when downtowns were vibrant and families strolled Main St. every December, soaking up the Christmas magic of holiday window displays.

Along the busy streets we also enjoyed the magic of live reindeer,

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Roaming characters,

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Live music, and horse drawn carriage rides.

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It was a magical night with Grace and my parents…

A perfect kick-off for the Christmas season.

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Thank you, Mom and Dad!

Bridal Showers and Showers of Blessings

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On the morning before Zach’s marriage proposal to Gracie, we celebrated another sweet couple. It was the bridal shower of Zach’s sister, Stephanie. Grace has been best friends with Stephanie since we moved here 10+ years ago. Grace was touched when Stephanie asked her to stand beside her as her maid of honor. Who knew that a year later Grace would be on a journey of becoming a sister-in-law to her sister-in-love!

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Four best friends and soon-to-be sisters!

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It was a beautiful celebration of a beautiful bride and we had a wonderful time celebrating with friends.

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Later that day Zach bent down on one knee to declare his love to Grace and invite her to officially become a Tame.

Only a few days passed before the happy couple had set a date and we found ourselves jumping into wedding plans.

Grace will be an October bride.

Knowing that our local craft supply store, Pat Catans, was going out of business, I suggested we take a drive over there to see if we could find any needed supplies while everything was 50% off. After Braden was dropped of for school, and Rusty and Tyler were settled into their online classes, the girls and I headed out for a girls-only excursion.

Before we left for the day we prayed for a fruitful day full of emotional healing and mother/daughter bonding, as well as inexpensive finds for Gracie’s upcoming nuptials.

God was beyond gracious and the day was filled to overflowing with His blessings! It was a day full of tender mercies.

What began as a trip to Pat Catan’s wedding aisle with the hope of some good finds, became a day of retail therapy, long overdue bonding with my girls, God leading us to unbelievable deals, and a huge chunk of wedding shopping taken care of.

We started at Pat Catans and soon discovered that the wedding aisle was not where we were going to find decorations for the reception. The the crystals and white silks did not align with Gracie’s vision of her wedding reception. Once we exited that section of the store, however, we discovered treasures galore and 2 hours of shopping (and four full shopping carts later) we had 90% of the reception decor purchased and loaded in the car.

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Our next stop was Salvation Army where God’s grace continued to rain down upon us in the form of reception decor, a graduation dress for Molly, as well as her shoes for prom.

By this point in the day the hour was drawing near for us to return home to meet Braden’s school bus. On a spur on the moment, last minute decision we decided to make one last, quick stop at a dress shop we were passing that advertised all their wedding dresses for $100, as part of their going out of business sale.

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We went inside just for the fun of it, not expecting to find anything. There were 10 wedding dresses left on the rack. Grace picked four to try on, and lo and behold, found her wedding dress. It wasn’t anything like the dress she had imagined liking but as soon as she put in on we all knew that it was the one. Alterations will need to be made but we couldn’t believe we were walking out of the wedding boutique with a $1200 dress for only $100.

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A sneak peek of the wedding dress!

Molly also found her maid of honor dress while we were there. It is perfectly Molly, and only cost $20, marked down from $250.

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For an investment of $550 God blessed us with an abundance of wedding shopping done and taken care of, in preparation for Grace and Zach’s big day!

It was a day full of blessings on many fronts and I came home feeling lighter…

No, it wasn’t just the result of a lighter wallet!

My to-do list was shorter, the heaviness of worry I have been shouldering was lifted, and my spirit was lighter thanks to the day filled with laughter and joyful creativity that I got to share with my daughters.

With just four hours of retail therapy with my girls and I had recaptured the joy of this season of life that has escaped me these last few weeks.

Here’s to all the beautiful brides-to-be!

 

Around the World in… 8 hours!

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Yesterday we were back at Epcot for round two.

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This time, rather than spending time in future world, we spent our entire day in the World Showcase. It took us 8 hours to travel from Canada to Mexico, taking the most indirect way possible through China, Morocco, France, and a few other countries along the way.

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Knowing we were going to spend our day at the World Showcase we took advantage of the fact that it didn’t open until 11:00 am and we slept in. It was needed.

When we arrived at the park, we began our adventure on the right side of the lagoon in Canada.

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Our first stop was the Kidcot Fun Stop.

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This activity had changed since our last visit, and instead of decorating a Duffy Bear fan to be stamped at each nation, each kid received a “suitcase” to collect stamped postcards at each nation.

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By visiting each nation, and collecting stamped postcards, the kids got to interact with cast members from each nation and walk away with a cool (FREE) souvenir at the end of the day.

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I knew this would be a harder day for my kiddos with ADHD. The idea of just walking, shopping and watching educational videos about different cultures is my idea of an AMAZING day, but for my thrill seeking, high energy kiddos, I predicted it to be a bit painful. I was hoping the interactive nature of the Kidcot experience, paired with our plan to snack our way around the world, would help everyone to make it through the day with smiles…

And my plan worked!

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Rusty was the mastermind behind our dining experience. He researched the most popular or culturally unique snacks to be found in each nation, balancing sweet and savory dishes through our journey around the world. This snacking experience became our lunch/dinner for the day as we purchased two or three treats at each country and split them eight ways, allowing everyone to enjoy the unique tastes of each nation without filling up halfway around the world.

Our first stop was Canada, where watched “O Canada,” a 360-circle vision film about Canada.

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This was also our first food stop of the day.

In Canada we had maple sugar candy,

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And Poutine.

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Poutine was a Canadian dish we were introduced to on our exciting Canadian adventure over the border to pick up an elevator. Poutine is a savory dish of french fries topped with squeaky cheese and brown gravy. It sounds crazy and looks even less appealing, but is actually pretty delicious!

Our next stop was the United Kingdom.

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Our food was fish and chips, which was enjoyed by everyone…Yum!

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The next nation in our trip around the world was France.

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This was Miss Molly’s favorite stop. She dreams of visiting Paris, so this was a good practice run.

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In France we enjoyed one of our tastiest treats of the day: strawberries and cream macaron ice cream sandwiches.

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While enjoying our taste of heaven we enjoyed watching the comedic antics of Seveur Amusant street performers.

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Morocco was the next stop on our tour.

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Morocco is one of the most visually immersive areas of the World Showcase, offering lots of fun photo opportunities.

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Here we feasted on baklava. Toby ordered four different types: walnut, cashew, pistachio, and chocolate…

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Each was more amazing than the last…Yum!!

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While we were enjoying our baclava, the skies opened up in typical Florida fashion, dowsing Morocco with a downpouring of rain. Brandon, my rain-loving boy, was in heaven and refused to come in out of the storm, soaking it all in with a smile as big as his heart.

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Japan was our next stop.

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Here, at the Japan pavilion, they offer a “pick a pearl” experience. On our last visit Toby treated each of us girls to a pearl. Grace enjoyed it so much that she decided to pay to do it again and have her pearl made into a necklace as a special souvenir of this trip.

Grace let her little brothers pick the oyster,

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And then we all enjoyed watching the big reveal of what treasure it held within.

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In Japan we decided to pick out two candy treats as our tasting experience in Japan.

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One was a pillowy sort of jelly candy,

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The other was a sweet potato biscuit.

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Both were yummy and gave us just the sugar kick we needed to keep pushing through our travels around the world.

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Our next nation was the United States.

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This marked the halfway point in our journey.

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Here we watched a show called, “The American Adventure.”

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Since we are well accustomed to all the American fare offered, we passed on the food offered at this pavilion, choosing, instead, to meander on to Italy.

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In Italy we purchased gelato and lemon ice for a cold treat.

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The next stop was…Germany!

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This is my personal favorite nation in the World Showcase. Walking through this pavilion brings back so many sweet memories of the time I spent in Germany as a young child, when my dad was stationed there.

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In Germany we feasted on pretzels.

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Next stop was China.

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We knew we wanted to watch the Jeweled Dragon Acrobats so we found a seat before the show began while Toby and Rusty went to pick up our snack for China- eggrolls and dumplings.

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By this point in our journey we had two nations left. We sat and enjoyed our treat while waiting for the show to begin.

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Unfortunately, due to high winds the show was canceled for the safety of the acrobats, so instead we strolled around the pavilion, soaking up the culture.

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Then we headed on to Norway.

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In Norway we stopped in the bakery to try the school bread.

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It was a delicious pastry with a cream filling.

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The big hit at this nation was the new Frozen Ever After ride that replaced the Maelstrom ride.

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 We weren’t sure how we would feel about this change, but actually found the new boat ride in Norway, revolving around the characters from “Frozen,” to be charming.

 We were pleasantly surprised.

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And our final stop in our trip around the world was…drumroll please…Mexico!

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By the time we had made it to Mexico the sun had long since fallen below the horizon.

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Inside we found ourselves fully immersed in a Mexican plaza,

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boasting all sorts of cultural wares for sale.

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It was here we rode “Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros,”

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 And concluded our 11-course meal with nachos.

By this time, it was almost 9:00 pm and we got into position to watch “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” It was a perfect conclusion to a day full of food, fun, and culture.

By the time the last firework exploded above our heads, everyone was ready to go home and put their feet up.

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Every wonder how many miles it is from Canada to Mexico…10.3 miles. You thought it would be more, didn’t you?!

       Well it felt like more.

But despite our sore feet and aching legs, it was a good day…

One of my favorite days of the trip!

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“I want to travel the world with you: go to every country, every city, take pictures and be happy.”

A “Plan B” Birthday

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It seems, despite all our best intentions, rarely do “Plan A” days materialize.

I’ve come to realize (and am working on accepting) the fact that we are “Plan B” people.

This isn’t by choice but it does seem to be an ongoing trend, and as a result we have gotten pretty good at rolling with the unexpected and embracing “Plan B” with a smile and a sense of humor.

Tyler’s 12th birthday was a “Plan B” sort of day.

We had such grand plans. After being rained out of our last visit to Kennywood we made plans to take advantage of our raincheck tickets and return for Tyler’s birthday. It seemed a perfect plan. The day prior was Brandon’s placement hearing so we thought it could serve as a celebration of Tyler’s birthday but also of Brandon’s placement. We even made plans to meet up with Tyler and Brandon’s little sister at the park after her half day at school.

Well,  all those grand plans came to a crashing halt when we received the unexpected and disappointing news that Kennywood was closed for the day. The day prior was the last day they were open during the week and they had shifted to “weekend only” hours.

Disappointment spread through the house at this news, but in true McCleery fashion we began brainstorming a “Plan B.” We already had the schedule cleared for the day. Everyone was off school and work and practice. Tutoring and therapy had also been cleared for the day. It has been so long since we had a wide open day ahead of us, with all family members present, and zero commitments, that we decided to take advantage of it and take a little day trip for Tyler’s birthday.

The older kids were already committed to volunteer at Ready Yourself Youth Ranch so we knew we wouldn’t be able to leave the house until 9:30 am. They have been volunteering twice a week for a year, and really enjoy the time they spend at the ranch twice a week caring for the horses, that they aren’t even fazed by the 6:30 am start time. Brandon has begun joining them in this volunteering opportunity and loves it as well.

One of our family’s birthday traditions is to wake the birthday child with the birthday song and a cupcake. The entire family gathers, the candle is lit, and the family bursts into the birthday child’s room in loud and enthusiastic song…

Setting the celebratory tone for the day.

When we told Brandon about this tradition and began preparing the cupcake at 6:00 am (so the kids could participate before going to the horse farm) he looked incredulous.

“So, we are going to purposely wake up Tyler at 6:00 am, sing to him and give him a cupcake…How is this a good idea?!! Why would you choose to do that?”

His facial expression made me laugh, and Toby’s look of “Yep. I’ve been making that point for years,” killed me.

But the smile that comes with this special birthday tradition makes the hours of lost sleep worth it. (Not everyone in the family would agree!)

When the older four kids returned from the horse farm we decided to let Tyler check out his  birthday table:

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And open his gifts.

The theme was built around our gift to Tyler. We decided to get him a basketball hoop for the driveway. It was Tyler’s 12th birthday gift but is really a gift for the entire family. We thought it would be a nice bonding activity for the kids, particularly Tyler and Brandon, but also would be another energy-burning coping activity for hard emotions. Some of my kids respond better to increasing energy to burn-off anxious energy rather than calming/quiet activities. The trampoline is our #1 tool for those kids but the basketball hoop will be an awesome alternate coping skill.

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He was thrilled!

The kids then took turns giving Tyler their gifts. I always love watching the kids prepare for a sibling’s birthday. Whether it was watching them shop in their own toy boxes when they were little, making homemade gifts as they got older, or using their own hard-earned money now that they are gainfully employed, much love and thought is put into the gifts they give.

It was especially touching watching Brandon work for Toby this week, earning money for his efforts, so that he could buy Tyler an extra special birthday gift. After years of not getting to celebrate his siblings’ birthdays he wanted to get something extra special for Tyler’s birthday. Their shared love of football led him to buy Tyler a football jersey (with some help from me.) He knew exactly what he wanted and purchased the jersey of Tyler’s favorite player.

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The other kids did equally well in their gift giving and Tyler was spoiled rotten by his big brothers and sisters.

 

Perhaps his greatest gift of the day, however, was having Brandon there to share his birthday with him after years apart, and knowing that his biological brother will soon be part of his adoptive family… his forever family.

After gifts were opened we headed out, driving north. We weren’t sure what we were doing, we just decided to head up to Erie and see what adventures we could fine. There was something a bit thrilling about the lack of planning, knowing we had an entire day ahead of us to explore and make memories as a family.

It was a beautiful day…sunny but cooler…a perfect day for a road trip!

When we arrived in Erie our first stop was Sara’s for lunch.

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During past visits to Presque Isle we have passed Sara’s and admired this fun, kitchy diner from a distance but had never stopped in. We decided Sara’s was a perfect place to dine for Tyler’s birthday.

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We enjoyed the fun atmosphere and delicious food. We will definitely be returning!

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After lunch we headed into Presque Isle State Park to enjoy an afternoon of swimming in Lake Erie.

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For Brandon, who had never been swimming in waves, and had never visited the ocean, this experience was particularly thrilling.

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The waves were about three feet high that day, giving the lake a distinctly ocean-like feel and making us all feel as though we were swimming at an Atlantic beach rather than Lake Erie.

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It was a delightful afternoon. Toby and I enjoyed some uninterrupted adult conversation as we lounged on the beach watching the kinds splash in the waves.

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The kids enjoyed an afternoon of playing in the sand and body surfing the waves of Lake Erie.

Tyler’s birthday celebration concluded with a trip to Waldameer Park, located just outside Presque Isle on Lake Erie.

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This was our first visit to Waldameer Park, but had heard many good things about it from friends who have visited many times.

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The park had a charming, old-fashioned feel that reminded me of our family’s favorite amusement park, Idlewild.

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The winding paths, tree covered benches, and old-fashioned décor gave the park a fun, vintage feel while still offering modern, thrilling rides for older kids.

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The kids had a blast and it was a perfect way to end Tyler’s special day.

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The baby of the family is now 12!

 

Treasured Memories at Living Treasures

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Ever since our visit to the subpar animal park we visited while in Virginia I had been itching for a visit to Living Treasures Animal Park. With Brandon visiting for a few days we thought it the perfect excuse to visit.

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It is a bit of a tradition in our family. It seems with pre-placement visits with both Tyler and Ozzie, Living Treasures was on the agenda and one of both of their first memories of time with our family. I treasure this because Living Treasures holds a special place in my heart and has since I first visited almost 2 decades ago. It was our go-to outing adventure with the older three when they were too little for the miles of hiking at the zoo, and as a result I feel a sense of nostalgia when I enter its gates.

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Having special “firsts” memories of Ozzie and Tyler there, when they first entered our lives as 6 and 10-year-olds, makes this place all the sweeter.

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Now I will have equally sweet “firsts” memories of Brandon strolling down the same gravels paths that have been the source of much joy as a momma.

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We arrived and purchased some feed buckets and carrots and headed to the deer yard:

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The wonderful thing about Living Treasures that sets it apart from larger zoos is the proximity to the animals and the opportunity to interact with the wildlife so closely.

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The chance to feed animals from the palm of our hand or through a gravity fed feeding tubes produced larger than life smiles and numerous giggles.

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Everyone has their favorites whom they have come to know and love over seasons of visits.

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The giraffes are always a hit!

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Another favorite area is the goat pen/ nursery area. This area has changed a lot in the past decade. It used to be on large pen with goats and baby animals running free. It was fun to navigate your way through the chaos of tongues and fur as critters fought for attention.

Unfortunately this area is now very tame (thanks to liability risks I’m sure) with only a small petting area for the goats…

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And a separate pen for the babies of the park.

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Despite not being able to climb in the pen with them and “shnuggle ’em” like I’d like, we still had a wonderful time getting kisses from these ADORABLE slime monsters.

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The kangaroo/wallabies yard is another favorite area of the park due to the incredible fertility of the mommas that call this area home.

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It seems each and every one of them have a leg or two sticking out from her pouch. If one lingers long enough a baby sometimes will pop its head out to say “hello.”

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Tyler’s favorite section of the park is, and always has been, the aviary. Here the kids purchased a small container of seed to split. That $1.00 purchase provided a good 45 minutes of entertainment as the kids lured in these flying beauties with a sprinkling of seed on their hands.

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Turns out the seed wasn’t needed…

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The colorful string bracelets that adorned their wrists were the real bait!

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It was such a delight watching the kids find such delight in the animals and in each other’s company. It was fun to hang back and observe as our kiddos shared a beloved family tradition with Brandon,

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And an even bigger joy watching him let down his guard and just be a kid…

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Something he hasn’t been able to do for a long time.

Another special day for this momma’s “Living Treasure memory book!”

 

Kennywood Delight

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Last week our kiddos experienced a staple experience of Pittsburgh children…

A trip to Kennywood Amusement Park.

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Although now in their late teens, my three oldest kids hadn’t experienced Kennywood Amusement Park firsthand (with the exception of a visit when Grace was a toddler.) We have always been loyal Idlewild enthusiast, taking advantage of their annual “Carload Days” that allows our family to visit once each summer for a fraction of the cost of typical amusement park tickets. At a cost of $45 a ticket for a day at Kennywood we’d never felt that the park justified the cost, but when Toby’s coworker invited us to take advantage of discounted tickets through his wife’s place of employment we decided to take him up on his offer and give the kids their first taste of Kennywood fun.

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Since Brandon was staying with us we invited him to join in the fun.

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Brandon and Ozzie were the only ones who had visited the park before, both of them with previous foster families, so they eagerly let the kids know what to expect and what rides they could look forward to.

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We arrived as the park opened, taking advantage of the low crowds at the start of the day to ride some of the bigger thrill rides and roller coasters.

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In our group we have a wide range of likes and dislikes in regards to amusement park rides. We have some that will ride anything. Others that prefer spinning rides but hate anything that drops from a high height. Then there are those who love roller coasters but get sick on rides that spin. The nice thing about this park was that there truly was something (many somethings) for everyone.

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As the lines began to grow longer for the roller coasters, we moved on to some of the smaller rides and had fun riding as a family on rides that appealed to everyone.

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Around noon we met up with Toby’s friend, Fernando, and his wife and daughter for lunch. Included in the cost of our discounted tickets was a catered lunch compliments of the University of Pittsburgh (Anastasia’s place of employment.)

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We enjoyed a delicious buffet of BBQ pulled pork, chicken, hot dogs, coleslaw, rolls, watermelon and salad. It all tasted delicious and it was so nice to sit and rest in the shade of the trees while filling our bellies.

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Then it was off to more rides!

Following lunch we chose some of the tamer rides and attractions to ease our stomachs back into ride mode.

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It was a hot day and by afternoon we were all feeling a little wilted. We found ourselves near the Pittsburgh Plunge, a water ride that sends off a huge wave of water that soak spectators standing too close.

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Some of us took advantage of the next wave, cooling off a bit as we waited for the 5 braver members of our crew who chose to climb aboard Black Widow to cool down by soaring through the sky on that spinning, swirling thrill ride.

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As dinner time neared the sky began to darken. I settled down at a covered table to wait while the rest of the family got in line for The Exterminator. That turned out to be the best decision of the day. The sky soon opened and crowds of people, including my family, made a run for the covered tables where we all were trapped for the next 90 minutes while the sky provided a brilliant light display and the clouds dumped buckets of water.

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I was grateful we nabbed a table before the crowds descended. The kids kept themselves entertained with coin spinning challenges as we crowded around the table.

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Soon the worst of the storm had passed, though the rain continued, so the kids moved out from under shelter to play in the puddles and create their own fun since rides were all shut down due to weather.

We waited, hoping that the rain would soon pass, rides would reopen, and as a result of patiently waiting out the weather, lines would be considerably shorter once they did reopen. Instead, an announcement was made that the park would be closing due to weather. After the initial groans of disappointment we realized that what might appear to be bad news was in fact great news because with the early closing came “rain checks” issued to each guest to return for free another day…

Which meant for the cost of our discounted tickets we would be getting almost 2 full days of fun instead of one. It was decided that we would return again for Tyler’s 12th birthday in August with Brandon joining us for another round of Kennywood fun!

It is true what they say…

Every cloud DOES have a silver lining!!

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

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On Tuesday Grace and I headed over to the movie theater to enjoy a noon showing of a film we have both been eagerly anticipating for months:

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Knowing the boys probably wouldn’t enjoy this documentary on Mr. Rogers, we decided to make it on of our girls’ week activities. We were doubly excited for this particular viewing because we were watching it from the comfort of Robinson Cinemark’s luxury loungers. I had never experienced anything like it before. Leather recliners had replaced the traditional upright movie seats and each chair came with a tray for those who opted to order dinner from the concession stand. Talk about fancy shmancy! And all for the discounted Tuesday price of $5.25 per ticket!

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Grace and I found our seats and settled in for the show.

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Fred Rogers is one of my personal heroes. I loved him as a child but as an adult, especially as the mother of hurt children, I look to his example as the epitome of powerful parenting, loving acceptance, and Christ-like living.

The older I get the more I desire to be a “Mr. Rogers” in a world of chaos, unkindness, judgement, and cynicism.

It has been said that Mr. Rogers often carried around a note in his pocket that was given to him by a friend of his who was a social worker. The note read, ” Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” He carried these words with him as a reminder of that truth and his life was a reflection of that philosophy.

Mr. Rogers was my childhood friend. Every day during “arsenic hour,” as my mother called it…that fragile hour before dinner when everyone was hungry and tired and emotional..my mom would place us in the care of Mr. Rogers while she went to get dinner on the table. She walked away knowing that we were in good hands and for a half an hour we learned the most important of life lessons.

From our television neighbor I learned some of the most powerful and poignant of life’s lessons…

1. I learned the key to success:
“There are 3 ways to ultimate success. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

2. I learned what it meant to be a hero:
“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”

3. I learned the value of play:
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves we are helping them to feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit.”

4. I learned the power of words:
“Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person…One kind word has a wonderful way of turning into many.”

5. I learned that it takes a neighborhood:
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It is easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

6. I learned that we are important:
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

7. I learned that love is a choice:
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

8. But the main lessons I learned as I sat and watched him change his shoes were…   I had value, I was loved, and I was okay just the way I was:
“I am just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us, and I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger…I like you just the way you are.”

What a profound lesson. I think the greatest lesson I have learned during this adoption journey is the importance of loving people (particularly children) as they are, rather than trying to make them into more “loveable” children.

It is a lesson that so many need to hear. Your value has nothing to do with what you have, how you look, the choices you’ve made, the life you’ve lived, or the talents you possess. Like Mr. Rogers would say, “You have value because of who you are.”

“It’s you I like.

It’s not the things you wear,

it’s not the way you do your hair.

It’s you I like…”

Soon the lights dimmed and everyone’s favorite Pittsburgh neighbor appeared on the screen.

“From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an intimate look at America’s favorite neighbor: Mister Fred Rogers. A portrait of a man whom we all think we know, this emotional and moving film takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe, and into the heart of a creative genius who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination.”

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It was amazing and moving and Grace and I both left the theater inspired to be more, to do more, and to love more..

In a world filled with judgement and hate let us be a loving light of acceptance.

Perhaps we all need to ponder on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers more often. The world would probably be a much nicer place..

“Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.

Since we’re together we might as well say:

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Won’t you be my neighbor..”

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Grace posing with the Mr. Rogers memorial statue in Pittsburgh on the 4th of July.

The Best of the Best

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As I consider Father’s Day I can’t help but focus on the blessing of good men in my life, men that have offered glimpses of the divine character of my Father in Heaven by the way they have lived their lives.

As I consider the blessings of a loving father, two incredible grandfathers, and a father-in-law who treated me like a cherished daughter, I recognize I have been blessed more than most.

Despite being imperfect beings, they were able to show me perfect love.

Through their noble callings as fathers and grandfathers I was able to gain a better understanding of my Heavenly Father’s unconditional love. From these men I learned lessons of sacrifice, diligence, forgiveness, gentleness, meekness, strength of character, and kindness.

I also recognize that  many aren’t blessed in the same way and the absence of a loving father can affect one’s acceptance of a Heavenly Father that loves and cherishes them unconditionally. I have seen it in my own adopted sons, both of whom were born of men who were anything but loving fathers to them. Men that put their own selfish desires and dysfunctional needs ahead of their children, leaving them with scars that may never completely heal.

Then I look at my husband and how his relationships with Grace, Molly and Rusty have allowed them a glimpse into the divine nature of Heavenly Father. His example exemplifies all that is good and loving about God, and by watching their earthly father love so selflessly, my children have come to know and trust in a loving Heavenly Father.

How blessed I am to have married a man so selfless, so kind, so humble and giving. He gives all, asking nothing in return, putting the needs of others ahead of himself and does so with a smile and generosity of spirit that I find humbling. When I look at Toby I see the character of his own earthly father shining forth. Like his father, Toby is gracious and selfless, opening his heart and home to all, never thinking of himself, and leaving all those he speaks with feeling loved and valued.

There is no better example of this than his choice to open his heart and home to two boys who were in need of a father. Choosing to step away from the comfort and ease of the life he was living, he chose to travel the harder path in his desire to follow Christ’s example and obey the divine calling God laid on his heart. It has not been an easy road, but not once did Toby pull back or walk away from this hard road. Rather, the tougher the behaviors, the closer in he moved, driven by a conviction that every child deserves a safe and loving family…every child deserves to be loved.  Through his Christ-like love our two youngest have been given a second chance to experiencing a father’s love. What was stolen from them in childhood is being redeemed with each word of acceptance, each affirmation, each act of forgiveness, and each loving embrace. Through Toby’s example my boys are learning how a real man loves and are slowly discovering their divine worth as a child of loving Heavenly Father.

Last Sunday we celebrated Toby.

The kids had big plans for Father’s Day, plans that began with breakfast in bed…

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And concluded with a special dinner after church.

In between, we enjoyed naps, gifts, and a fun Father’s Day activity.

The kids each made or purchased a special Father’s Day gift for Toby, but my gift was more of an experience than a tangible offering.

A few weeks ago, while shopping for Girl’s Camp supplies at Pat Catans Craft store, I discovered Goblies, throwable paint balls. I knew at once that they had to be this year’s Father’s Day gift.

I knew Toby would love it but also that it would be an awesome, laughter-inducing, memory-making, stress-relieving activity for the younger boys who sometimes struggle with hard emotions on these memory-connected holidays.

I purchased a bag of Goblies in seven different colors, so we could each have our own color to mark one another, leaving undeniable evidence of our success on each other’s shirts.  I also bought inexpensive white t-shirts for each member of the family and wrapped them all up in a box for Toby’s Father’s Day gift.

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On Sunday afternoon, following a Father’s Day feast and a long Sunday nap, we headed outside to make some special Father’s Day memories in the form of some messy fun.

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Pick your ammunition!

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It was a blast!

 

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Let the battle begin!

 

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Oops!

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The paint began flying! Each paint ball was filled with liquid paint that splattered when it hit a surface or was squeezed in the direction of a family member.

 

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Tyler loved it.

 

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In fact we all did!

 

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The carnage was colorful…

 

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…and slimy!

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Yes, it was as fun as it looks! A perfect family fun night for the perfect Dad.

 

How grateful I am to be married to a man who loves me and my children so fully. How grateful we all are for his unconditional love, his huge heart, his wicked sense of humor, his adventurous spirit and his enduring commitment to his family.

 

Happy Father’s Day, Toby! We love you bunches!

 

 

A Greatest Showman Sing-Along

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Friday was the evening of the much anticipated Father/Son campout with our church. I say “much anticipated” with a tongue-in-cheek twist as it is much anticipated by some in our family while stoically endured by others (ie: Toby.)

This year was particularly rough, as it rained buckets for most of the night and the boys were forced to camp out in the van rather than a tent. They also had an extra early morning with Rusty (and Molly) signed up for SAT testing that required a 7:45 am arrival. The result of all those factors was minimal sleep for the boys and Toby returning home wondering yet again why he makes the effort to attend each year and pledging once again that this year is the last year….

But I know Toby, and next year’s father and son campout will roll around and he will once again selflessly submit to another sleepless night, as is tradition, for the sake of making his 3 boys feel loved and valued…

Which is one of the million reasons I adore this man!

Typically, while the boys are enduring a sleepless night of rain and mosquitos, the girls and I enjoy our own traditions while taking advantage of an entire night with no boys in the house. Our traditions tend to revolve around at home spa treatments, chocolate, and chick-flics. This year, however, adult responsibilities meant I was down a daughter since Grace was scheduled to work, but rather than let it put a damper on our evening I made special plans for just Molly and I knowing that in a few weeks Grace and I will have an entire week alone at home alone while everyone else is engaged in summer plans.

I began searching for a fun activity that Molly and I could enjoy together when I stumbled across a fun event occurring at the historic Strand Theater in Zelienople. Here is a little background information on this neat place where Molly and I enjoyed our girls’ night out:

HISTORY OF THE STRAND THEATER

The Strand Theater was constructed and managed by Gioachino and Rosalia Sapienza in 1914.  Gioachino and Rosalia were Italian immigrants seeking a new life and new opportunity in America and Zelienople.  In order to blend in with their adopted community, they became known to friends and neighbors as Joseph and Rosalie.  Joseph originally wanted to build a fruit market, but the local banker convinced him that the town really needed a theater.  So two-thirds of the structure was dedicated to The Strand, and the remaining third was Sapienza’s Fruit Market.  The Strand featured silent films with live piano accompaniment as well as Vaudeville-style shows on its small stage.

In 1939, The Strand underwent its first major renovation and the structure was dedicated entirely to the theater, albeit with a nearly exclusive focus on the motion picture medium.  Joseph moved his fruit market across the street into what is now ‘The Silversmith Shoppe’ and a tax preparation office.  But the ‘Sapienza’ name is still emblazoned across the top of the building’s facade. 

The Strand thrived as a social center for Zelienople and Harmony for decades, providing a destination for families to escape the drudgery and routine of rural life and to meet and enjoy a night’s entertainment. But The Strand began to struggle when multiplex cinemas began dotting the suburban landscape.  The theater became more of a drop-off point for parents to leave their kids for an afternoon matinee.

But with increased pressure from the onset of the Multi-Plex and VCR era, The Strand could no longer compete. One night In the early 1980’s, The Strand closed its doors and they have not been open to the public since…………………………….until now.

There have been a variety of suitors for The Strand over the years. Developers and private investors considered making use of the building for everything from a mini-mall to a dance school to a dinner theater. As recently as Fall, 2000, the FBI considered The Strand for use as a field office. However, the extensive cost of buying and renovating the building has kept potential developers away.

The Strand Theater Initiative was created in 2001 as a non-profit corporation to save the venerable old theater from the wrecking ball, with the goal of reviving The Strand as a cultural, education and community outreach center.  Through private and public financial support, The Initiative purchased The Strand in 2002 and completed an exterior renovation in January, 2005. 

The event we attended there was for the showing of The Greatest Showman on the big screen, but this was no ordinary night at the movies. The Strand Theater was offering a sing-along version of one of our favorite movies, complete with the words to each song highlighted at the bottom of the screen. I knew that it was going to be a night to remember and I was right!

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Molly and I left for Zelienople soon after the boys headed out for their camp out. After a stop for Chinese take-out we drove to the Strand Theater, making sure we arrived in  time to collect out $5.00 tickets from “will call,” and with enough time to soak in the atmosphere of the historic theatre before the house lights dimmed.

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We found the interior of the theatre as charming as the exterior and were delighted at the opportunity to sit in the balcony.

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The movie was as wonderful as the first five times we had seen it but was even more magical thanks to the addition of 100 voices joining the characters on screen in song as we belted along to our favorite tunes.

Molly was all smiles and I couldn’t help but marvel at the magic found in that moment as we sat in the dark and I listened to her sing along with the voices around me.

We loved The Greatest Showman the first time we saw it in the theater for my 40th birthday, but that was nothing compared to this experience. It was awesome…a special memory I will forever cherish with Miss Molly.

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