A Story for the Ages

Did I tell you about that time I was robbed in Italy?

This morning my second daughter asked if Olive Oil tasted gross, since it is the only oil I use to cook our fourth daughter’s meals. 

And with reverence I exuded my enduring love for olive oil, ever since visiting my family’s olive tree farm in Calabria, Italy.  

I wish I had words to describe the experience of existing amongst an olive oil tree farm, being in the presence of literal tanks of fresh olive oil.  Olive trees as far as the eye could see.  

When I took my first taste, life, as I knew it, would never be the same. 

Think, eating a fresh tuna off the boat versus tuna fish in the can. 

There is no comparison. 

I was 18 and for my graduation, I had asked my biological father to take me to his homeland. 

I had never lived with him, we had shared a roof only one weekend before but it was important to me to know my roots. 

He was first generation American and I had never known my grandparents. 

So, he agreed. 

Our first hotel in Rome was a closet.  Talk about zero to one hundred.  We had rarely spent a night together, nonetheless nearly touching!

I love yous had never been said, instead, as a child, he would grab my ear lobe and look at me with endearment. Like he loved me so much he couldn’t even believe I was real.  

But there we were.  Father, Daughter. 

We traveled to Naples and Pompeii and then on to the olive tree farms in Calabria, meeting my grandfather’s relatives.  

They, speaking only Italian, welcomed me like they had known me my entire life and served me a lasagna for a table of 15 that I will never forget.  

My cousins threw me on the back of their motorbikes and whipped me around the mountainous roads as I learned to scream, “ay-aya-aya-ay!!!!!”.   

We left in our rented, bright-blue Mercedes for my grandmother’s homeland of Licodia Eubea, Sicily with only a few days of our trip to go. 

I stood in the room my grandmother was born.  

I am 38.  My dad is 90 this year.  My grandmother was born in the 1800s. 

This was major. 

And then we were robbed. 

We were lost in an alley in Sicily when a motorbike blocked our rental car’s way, while a thief on foot opened our back car doors and stole our backpacks containing nothing but nine rolls of film, my journal and a legal pad with the names and contact information of all the relatives we had met along the way. 

In other words, our memories. 

We left Italy with one roll of film. 

And a story for the ages. 

Carry

“Carry me.”

I remember. 

I distinctly remember my thinking,

“This is it.  This is the last time.”

The heaviness of her footsteps.  

Her arms wrapped tightly around my back, my legs around her waist.

She struggled but she persevered.

“Mom, I can walk.”

“No, honey, I’ve got you.” 

We ascended the stairs to my bedroom, something she had done for a decade, but this time was different because now 

It was the last time. 

I was getting too heavy. 

I took note of the banister, wanting to remember its rich, brown, smoothness.  

The way I had always slid down it on my way to school. 

The security I felt in grasping it. 

I was outgrowing clothes and shoe sizes but until that moment I hadn’t realized, 

I’d outgrown my mother. 

“Carry me.” 

A cry for help I would continue until I carried my own.  

“Carry me,” my nine-year-old pleaded tonight. 

I wondered, 

Does she know?

It’s time she carried herself?

Camille Vaughan Photography

That Time We Homeschooled

Today was our last day of homeschooling.  

And I feel a mixture of relief and heartache.  

A year ago, I tossed and turned at night, wondering what to do about the upcoming school year.  

My children were breaking down over their zoom meetings- unable to come to the computer, overwhelmed with tears over the strangeness of virtual learning.

I knew Covid was only going to get worse in the winter months and feared what the school year would bring.  But I also feared how we would cope and adapt to homeschooling.  Would my children miss their friends?  Would they become hermits?  Would I lose my mind?

Ultimately, I went with my gut and in September, we dove right in.  Pre-K, 1st and 3rd grade.

In the course of this past school year, I’ve taught my daughter in Pre-K how to read, helped my first grader graduate from a beginning reader to fluently reading chapter books and taught my third grader multiplication, division, and through rich literature, discussed real-world issues like racism and poverty. 

In other words, I killed it!  We nailed it.  We had the absolute BEST time homeschooling, usually in our pajamas, ending by noon every day to spend the afternoon outside swimming, biking and playing.  Better yet, my husband was working from home so we had lunch together almost every day.  In so many ways, I want to freeze time and keep on, keepin’ on.  

But time continues to pass.  My children are growing older.  Our babysitter is off to college in the fall (for real this time after deferring her first year because of Covid) and my husband will likely return to the office soon.  

I struggled over the decision as to whether to continue homeschooling next year or to return them to our beloved public school in the back of our neighborhood.  But as amazing as this past year was, continuing to homeschool next year felt like holding onto a relationship that had passed its prime.  It was good while it lasted but my gut tells me it is time to move on. 

Life is a work in progress.  A series of never-ending surprises.  Having four children has taught me to roll with whatever comes my way and in the midst of it all, revel every moment. And this past year, we did just that.  That time we homeschooled.  A year we’ll never forget.  

Freedom!

NINE-AND-A-HALF YEARS.

I have been changing diapers for 9 and 1/2 years straight.

Until now. 

My fourth and final daughter is fully potty trained. 

For the first time in 9.5 years, I cancelled my diaper order. 

For the first time in 9.5 years, I did not reorder the baby wipes. 

And I’m-a-tell-y’all-what. 

It is a LIBERATING feeling. 

Nine-and-a-half years, no breaks. 

One adorable baby butt after another. 

But the time has come to say SEE YA!

Time to pass the buck on to other adorable baby butts- just not mine!

We made it!  

Freedom!

After

What happens after?

Do you remember when you tasted something for the first time?

The equal mixture of excitement and apprehension?

That’s how I am feeling these days. 

Just when I thought things with our youngest couldn’t get any harder, they hit (what I hope is) rock bottom back in December 2020.  My husband and I were surviving on fumes- every night wondering if we should take our daughter to the hospital to find some magical cure for her nightmare flaring skin.  I was in the bathtub with her nightly at 2 am to help calm the itch and waking up at 7 a.m. to homeschool her three big sisters, thanks to the pandemic.  We knew we could not survive much longer. 

So we prayed.  We asked everyone we knew to pray and add her to their prayer list and we searched.  I spent hours and days and weeks and months researching and meeting with specialists of every kind from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Michigan and California to find any possible relief as we all, particularly she, continued to endure a living hell.  

We changed her diet, we had her relentlessly tested for multiple issues and within the last month, she has improved.  

But what happens after?

What happens once you emerge from trauma?

I’ve been waking up with Elizabeth every night for three years and even my pregnancy with her was ridden with weekly appointments due to concerns with her growth. 

How do I adapt to “normal”? 

I’ve been changing diapers for over 9 years nonstop and now she is potty training.  

What happens when I’m not?

Who am I now?

What taste is this?

Camille Vaughan Photography

Tooter

It began innocently enough. 

“Mommy, tell me a story.”

As a writer I realize this sounds unbelievable, but I always dreaded the day my child would ask me to make up a story on-the-spot.  Not because I didn’t want to, but because I never thought myself capable.  

I’m not sure I ever allowed myself to explore my imagination to those depths.  I’ve always envied those storytellers who were able to, so seemingly effortlessly. 

But my child was working through some hard feelings and I desperately wanted to pull through for her, so I leapt.  

The first character that came to mind was an old beat-up truck named “Tooter”.  I knew that name would make her laugh, and it did. 

Next, had to be a yellow convertible, Tooter’s wife Tulip.  Harper loves yellow and I could just see her wavy blonde hair blowing in the wind.  

And finally, Cooper (and later, his little sister Pinky), their son. 

Over the past year, we’ve woven an entire collection of Tooter stories together, taking turns filling in the blanks, covering every major moment of Harper’s life, particularly what is relative to that day: jealousy, joy, loss, fear, surprise, excitement, perseverance, truthfulness, goodness and more.  

“Mommy, tell me a Tooter story.” She pleads.  

Seconds after I’ve spent an hour lying on the floor of her youngest sister’s bedroom, in the final minutes of the day.  The moment I am more spent than any other in the last 24 hours and yet, I dig, scraping the depths of my reserves to pull through for this little girl, looking to me for answers and peace of mind before bedtime. 

Tooter’s family has become our medium of communication on topics that are too sensitive to discuss directly.  

And we are both better because of them.   

Skittles

“Nobody knows how the story ends

Live the day, doing what you can

This is only where it began

Nobody knows how the story ends.”

And so goes the life of our Elizabeth. 

Little Lizzie had 10 vials of blood taken last week.  She’s still severely allergic to dairy, egg and peanut and FPIES (Food Protein Induced Entercolitis Syndrome) to rice, sweet potato, avocado, quinoa and beef.  

We have avoided soy, corn and wheat out of utmost caution for her severe eczema. 

Until tonight-

When she tried a skittle (corn syrup). 

I’ve had four children. 

Eating a skittle has never been a bigger deal. 

She called her big sister, Harper, specifically, in to witness the event. 

And she still wouldn’t chew- only lick. 

This month Elizabeth turns three and our journey continues- likely with a lot of food therapy in our future. 

Acceptance of new tastes and textures- trusting the foods she has always avoided.  

“Nobody knows how the story ends

Live the day, doing what you can

This is only where it began

Nobody knows how the story ends.”

“Nobody Knows” by The Lumineers

Here We Go

She said, “I don’t want to grow up!”

And for the first time, she really meant it. 

Feeling the weight of the added responsibilities of being nine, she has decided that this whole aging thing: it’s not for her.  

I can’t say I blame her.  

I paused to behold her face; to mourn the loss of her rapidly-ending childhood innocence; simultaneously wondering just who this grown girl is going to become. 

“No one understands what it’s like to be me!” she lamented.  

Girlfriend, join the club.  

Welcome to the real world. 

It’s not for the faint of heart. 

And as much as I want to protect and shield her from it, I’m honored that I have the privilege to walk beside her as she learns to grapple with the truth of it all. 

Hold my hand, here we go!

Camille Vaughan Photography

To the Ends of the Earth

To the Ends of the Earth

I will go, for my child. 

We are tired and worn.  

But here’s the deal:

You either give up or you fight. 

Right?

You either accept status quo or you keep searching. 

And in the face of agony, we will continue searching until we find her relief. 

I texted my friends the other night and exclaimed, “I will call Kanye West!  I will call Brad Pitt!”

Not that they can do anything specifically for Elizabeth but that they are considered inaccessible.  

Not for me. 

We are tired and worn. 

But to the ends of the Earth I will go for my child. 

To the ends of the Earth.