Ri conquered her first out-of-the-country trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to visit her baby cousin Elena, Aunt Sarah, and Uncle Jorge. She has mastered the art of travel at age 10. When we arrived at airport security, she nagged at me to get her passport out to be prepared to show the agent. Then she schooled me about taking my laptop out of my book bag and placing it in a separate bin. Once we were through security, she wanted to get her Starbucks drink and go straight to the gate to be ready to board (Jon would have been so proud). And as I fretted about how tiny the plane was, she calmly pulled out my computer from her bag, slipped on her earbuds, and started up the movie she downloaded the night before.

Our flight arrived on time into Houston so we had three hours to chill before our flight to Oaxaca. Ri wanted some good ol’ American cuisine before we headed south so we ate at Ruby’s 50’s diner. I let her splurge on whatever she wanted. She chose a bacon cheeseburger with sweet potato fries. I have not witnessed a more gleeful girl than Ri when she took a bite out of her burger.

“Now, this is a burger, Mom! Bacon and cheese and a huge piece of meat. Yum!”  Gotta love this girl. We filled ourselves up and waited anxiously for our flight. The plane to Oaxaca was just as small as the one from Columbus. Ri calmed my nerves by holding my hand. 

 We landed in Oaxaca so excited to see our clan. Ri stood next to the conveyor belt waiting for our suitcase. It arrived quickly and we got in line to give our papers to the agent. The automatic doors opened for the person ahead of us to leave and we got a glimpse of Elena. Ri leapt in the air.

And so our epic Oaxacan adventure began. We had such a marvelous, magical time. Some highlights:

1. Bed jumping! Elena loves her some bed jumping; it was one activity that guaranteed smiles from her. It was also a mighty good incentive to get her to eat her oatmeal. She loved to strategically place Ri on the bed, and then me, and then proclaim “Jump!” We’d jump and she would fall and look up at us and smile or let out a bubbly laugh. Then we’d do it again and again and again.

During our trip, Elena did to Ri exactly what Ri did to Sarah when Ri was little – pushed her away. Ri used to shout “No, Sarah!” every time Sarah came near her when she was little. Elena just liked to use the word “No” and raise her right palm to push you away. I was worried Ri would get sad by Elena’s actions but she completely rolled with the flow after I talked with her about how most babies go through this stage. Sarah kept reiterating how much Elena would be begging to be with her when she got older. And Sarah and Ri learned to condition jumping on giving kisses. So every time Elena asked Ri to jump, Ri would demand “give me a kiss.” Elena would quickly abide to get the jumping started. 

 2. Fresh juice. I remember the juice from my last trip to Oaxaca. There is a stand that Sarah frequents with the nicest gentleman. He always carries a smile and a raucous welcome. Ri loved the strawberry mango juice, and it came in a plastic bag with a straw, which she thought was super cool.  3. The Cerra del Fortin. Could I please wake up every morning to a run on this trail? Absolutely stunning.

Ri did not want to go to the Fortin with Sarah and I but we begged and cajoled her and she broke down and agreed. She was so glad she did when she got to witness Sarah driving her Blazer up a 90 degree hillside freaking out that we were going to flip (I was too, frankly). But the Menkedick sisters pulled it together and got turned around. Sarah and Elena went running and Ri and I walked the trail. She was a bit irritable at first but then ten minutes in, she whispered “I’m glad I came.” How couldn’t she be with this view?! And Aunt Sarah persuaded Ri to run with her at the last leg of the trail so that Ri could brag that she ran the Cerra del Fortin!

4. Walks with Elena. Elena loves hanging with her mama but there were some times when Sarah would quickly hand her over to Ri before Elena knew what was happening! Ri had to do all sorts of tricks for her to keep her amused but Ri had no issues doing them in order to be able to hold her. We walked to breakfast or lunch most days and Ri would bounce Elena on one hip and then quickly move her to the other hip. Elena thought this activity was awesome. Or Ri would put her on her shoulders and Sarah and I would hold Elena’s back to make sure she stayed steady while pointing out everything and anything we could to have her forget she was on Ri’s shoulders.  

 5. Nuevo Mundo. Jorge’s brother owns this coffee shop close to the Zocolo and it is scrumptious. Ri fell head over heels for the strawberry cream crepes and I looked forward to their double cappuccinos. 

 Ri also found a treasure at the coffee shoppe. They had little pamphlets organized in different compartments on a wooden box on the wall. Elena loved to take the pamphlets out and put them back in the different compartments. So Ri would scoop up Elena and stand in front of the wooden box to allow Elena to play.

6. Village parade. Jorge found a parade for us to see in a small village about 45 minutes away. We had planned on a different parade the night before but Elena was still not feeling the best so we waited a day to take her out. And this parade was worth the wait. It was a parade to celebrate being gay, and there were many cross dressing males,  including the queen of the parade. We followed the music to an area containing many homes in a small camp. A man was passed out in front of the first home. We knew it was gonna be a good party.

Jorge spoke to a man at the entrance and the man invited us into the area. There were men dressed up in animal costumes and dressed up in extravagant dresses and sparkling heels. Kids ran around after a puppy. Ducks waddled around us. Ri, a bit taken aback at first, eventually soaked it up and watched the scene unfold. After a few minutes, the crew was ready to start the parade. The music started up and everyone went out to the street. Jorge shot a ton of pictures and we danced in the street with our new friends. 

     The parade ended at a stage with folding chairs set out around it. We sat down and a short, hunched-over old woman walked over to sit next to us. She wore a strawberry shortcake winter cap on top of her head and wore an interminable smile. After a while, we rose out of our seats to look around at the village church and square. Then we spotted them – the little devils.  The boys dress up in these colorful costumes and wear masks, and turn into little devils. They hold wooden sticks with flour-filled eggs on top of them and run around looking for girls to “flour.” Ri was a chosen one and before she could know what was happening – BOOM – a dust of flour fell on her shoulder and face. It was awesome.   One of the local men kept prodding Ri to climb the metal pole next to the church because she could grab prizes on top. They have a metal ring at the top of the pole that holds a bike, backpacks, and toys. If someone makes it up there, they untwist the string holding the object, it falls to the ground, and they get to keep it. If it’s not hard enough to climb a 40 foot metal pole, they grease it so its impossible to grip. I really want to try this at Mario’s 9th birthday party.   7. Hierve el Agua. Jorge and Sarah took Ri and I to Hierve el Agua, a spectacular site with springs and petrified waterfalls. It was a 90 minute drive from their apartment  through the countryside. We planned the car trip around Elena’s nap at noon – which she never took (but she was pleasant as can be holding her mama’s hand in the backseat). I think the reason she never took her nap was because Ri was jammin’ it out to Taylor Swift in the front seat with Jorge. And jammin’ to Maroon 5. And some other artists who Jorge had never listened to in his lifetime. Ri enjoyed uizzing him and singing the lyrics to him (Jorge, you will be sainted).

We arrived to a windy plateau. Sarah put the cutest bathing suit ever on Elena. Ri and I had to stick to shorts and t-shirts. Ri didn’t care at all, though; she just wanted to plunge into water. She had been dealing with over 80 degree days for three straight days and she wanted relief! The springs were nestled in the mountains, and the views were magnificent. We walked down to the first pool of water. Ri was the first one down and rushed into the water. She didn’t get two steps into the water when she went BAM – feet in the air and butt landing hard on the concrete. My sweet girl; everywhere we go she seems to find a way to go down. Sarah and I laughed so hard our sides hurt. Ri, as always, laughed it off with us and dove headfirst into the deeper part of the water.   She begged me to go under with her; I refused.  But I did get in to the water up to chest level, and it was freezing. We played around in the pool with Elena who loved the water as much as Ri. After a while, Maria wanted to try out the water down the hill. We gathered our things and traveled down to that pool of water. It was a bit warmer and Ri and Sarah walked in together. Elena and I followed. Jorge snapped pictures and we enjoyed the views. But if you stood up with your body out of the water, watch out. Freezing wind. Baby Elena started to get cold so Sarah went back on land with her while Maria and I braved it for a few more minutes. The landscape was beautiful as you looked out on it from the edge of the water.

    But the departure from the water was brutal! It was freezing with the wind, and we had no towel to wrap around ourselves. So we sprawled our bodies out to get maximum sun exposure and waited to bake.

 We eventually warmed up enough to be able to conquer the trail to the petrified waterfall. Ri and I ate Chex Mix as we climbed over boulders. We arrived at a sharp precipice and Ri immediately gravitated to the edge. Daredevil. I made her stay 15 feet back and I stayed 30.       Sarah, Jorge and Elena met up with us on the way down the trail and Elena was all dried off and back in her darling toddler attire. We walked past the pool of water but Ri couldn’t resist jumping in one more time. She’s insane. I refused to follow suit but I did walk Ms. Elena around the perimeter of the water. She held my hand and talked away.


She also got a kick out of watching Ri kick her legs up out of the water. The little things in life.  At the entrance to the springs, there were a handful of fruit and food stands. Sarah swore by the coconut water so we decided to try it. Ri was not convinced so she went with the tried and true pineapple. It did not disappoint.     On our way home, we got a taste of the countryside. A weathered older gentleman walked his goats on the side of the road.    Two minutes later, we witnessed donkeys carrying sticks up the path.   Pretty surreal to catch this site while listening to Taylor Swift and eating coconut wedges with spices drizzled on them.

8.The Tree of Tule. On our way home, Jorge steered us to Santa Maria del Tule to visit one of the widest and oldest trees around the world. It is a Montezuma’s Cypress and it’s over 2000 years old. Beautiful.    8. Espresso! Ri tried her first espresso at Nuevo Mundo.   She looks sophisticated in this picture but this is the “before sipping espresso” picture. I didn’t get an “after” shot because she spit it out so quickly.

9. Fried grasshoppers. We almost left Oaxaca without Ri tasting them but luckily the restaurant we went to on the last night served them. Ri was so happy to hear that! This girl is game for most anything, god love her, so she readily tried one. She didn’t spit this out so it beat espresso! Jorge and I devoured a few in comraderie with Ri. Not bad.

 10. Moments with Elena. Let’s face it. The overwhelming reason for this trip was to be with Elena! We love Sarah and Jorge tremendously but we wanted some quality time with the munchie-munch. Elena had a bit of a different idea of our purpose for vacationing in Oaxaca. At 20 months old, she is just learning the thrill of using the word “no.” She mastered it by the time we left. Ri loves to tell people about Elena’s four hand gestures to articulate “no.” She saw each one of them scores of times. Sarah, Ri and I would laugh hysterically at Elena’s dogmatic hand gestures to us as we approached her. Despite Elena being in her new phase, Ri was still able to spend some quiet, sweet moments with her, like this one when Maria was explaining to Elena how to have fun with water (Elena got to see a second slip and fall by Maria when she slipped on the stone and her leg fell into the water; the girl keeps us laughing).  Or this one when Ri carried Elena in the backpack at the Cerra del Fortin.  Or when Elena was fascinated watching Ri climb a tree and wanted to follow suit.

 11. Spicy Medicine. Aunt Sarah bought Cocoa Krispies cereal for Ri at my request. I knew that if all else failed she would live on Cocoa Krispies. The first morning we woke up, Sarah was feeding Elena berries and oatmeal. As soon as Elena saw Ri sit down with her Cocoa Krispies, she pointed and begged for some. So, we had to come up with a reason she couldn’t have them. Hence, the creation of Spicy Medicine!  Ri would say “you won’t like this, Elena, it’s spicy medicine!” I can’t wait until Elena stays with us and gets a taste of that “spicy medicine!” The oatmeal days may be long gone….

12. Hot Stone massage. Ri got her first massage while in Oaxaca, and even better, a hot stone massage. Spoiled. Sarah and I dropped her off for a 30 minute massage and got a coffee with Elena. We told the masseuse to go lightly on Maria because I did not want anything to happen on this first massage. Meanwhile, I got to spend some quality time with my niece and spoil her with tastes of cappuccino foam. We went to pick up Maria, and she came out of the room crying. At first I was scared half to death that something had gone really wrong but then she sniffled “they didn’t give me a hot stone massage.” The masseuse explained that she thought we meant no hot stones when we said “go lightly.”  So being the sweet mama I am, I gave up 30 minutes of my massage to Maria so that she could get her much anticipated hot stone massage. She loved it.

13. Crossy Road. Maria is addicted to an iPhone game called Crossy Road. It is very similar to the game Frogger I used to play as a kid. She and I had intense battles in the afternoon when Elena would nap or in the evenings before bed. I think I beat her three times out of 150. Jorge played it for the first time when we were at a restaurant and he started screaming as he tried to move the little chicken across  the road. It was hysterical.

14. Gourmet cooking. On our last nightt, we went to a very fancy restaurant. It was the same restaurant we went to with a group of people when Sarah and Jorge got married. They have the most delicious food. Sarah and Jorge and I split three different dinners (scallops, ribeye and duck) that were all scrumptious. Maria ordered  something out of the blue: a rice dish covered with feta cheese and onions. She devoured it in seconds. The girl is up for anything.   15. Playing with balloons as tall as a telephone pole. While Sarah and I got massages, Jorge took Ri and Elena to the Zocalo and bought two tall balloons for Ri. Jorge said the people in the square loved her because she was having so much fun with the balloons. She even managed to endear the folks she accidentally whacked on the heads with the balloons. And Elena loved watching Ri try to manage those giant characters.

 16. Pulling the wooden pup around the terrace. On our second morning in Oaxaca, we bribed Elena to eat oatmeal and then we would go on the terrace. She has a little wooden puppy that she likes to pull around with her. We took the puppy out with us for Elena to pull. But the joke was on us. She directed Maria to pull the pup the entire time. Maria gladly obliged, nonetheless, and we spent 20 minutes watching Maria pull the  wooden puppy while Elena followed her pointing to where Ri should go. It was golden.

17. The Zocalo. I walked down to theZocalo  nearly every day when Elena would nap. I loved it. There were always musicians playing music and people selling vibrantly colored balloons. We all walked down after dinner one night to let Ri see the scene. It is a wonderous refuge to read a book, take a rest, and people watch.  

    18. Kefir. My dad gave me a piece of advice before Ri and I left for Oaxaca. Drink some kefir while you are there. Kefir is cultured milk with lots of good gut bacteria. Yep, good gut bacteria. Jorge made Ri and I some after we ate fish at a local restaurant and felt a little queasy. I had been warned by dad and Sarah that kefir can be rather disgusting tasting.  But I guzzled down a half of a glass, and Ri got a few sips in before she gave up. And, dad was right (or else Ri and I just have iron stomachs) – we left Oaxaca with absolutely no sickness!

19. Mid-afternoon cafe lunches. We went to a little cafe close to Sarah’s apartment for lunch one afternoon and it was so good. The salad was phenomenal – we had one with turkey and chesses and avocado with  an out-of-this-world dressing. And the sandwiches were scrumptious, too. Ri stuck with her German roots and ordered sausage and potatoes!  20. Belly laughs. We had some serious belly laughs together on this trip. Ri falling in the spring water was a good one. Or Elena standing on the side of the bed and demanding Ri to stand on one side of her and me on the other and jump up and down incessantly. Or, the greatest one, listening to Ri call out songs on Sarah’s iPod and quizzically call out “Sarah Menkedick, Goats? You have a song, Aunt Sarah?” It was Sarah’s audiotape of an essay, and we all laughed for ten minutes straight while listening to Sarah read “Goats.”

But best of all was just the ability to spend a good chunk of time with my sister and brother-in-law and niece without work interruptions or errands or other daily pokes. Sarah and I have not gotten that in quite some time.

I’m thrilled we got to visit Jorge’s birthplace. Mexico provided us with wonderous contradictions: rugged yet tender; vibrant yet muted; raucous yet serene. It calls out to you: I remember the morning Ri and I were hiking and we kept hearing what sounded like a cow in the distance. I asked her if she heard the cows.  She laughed and corrected me. “That is the sound of a gas truck, mom!” Uncle Jorge had taught her that the day before.

Give me the money!

Mario is in love with his beyblades lately. He’s dying to buy Japanese ones on eBay. But he has little to no money in his wallet. So he decides to clean his room, Maria’s room and the bathroom to earn some money. Granted however, he does not tell Jon or me about this  decision so we did not set any price we’d pay for him to do these chores. And Maria never did either. 

He finishes “cleaning” Ri’s room, which entails throwing her clothes in random drawers and tossing random objects on the ground onto her bed. I think his mantra is “if the floor is clean, the room is clean.” He walks downstairs and informs Ri that he cleaned her room and she needed to pay him. She casually finds her wallet and whips out a $20 bill to give him. This all happens while Jon and I are at work.

When we come home, we hear what happened. Mario now assumes because of Ri’s ridiculous generosity that he is going to score serious cash from me and Jon for cleaning two rooms. Wrong. He’s deflated when we tell him we may give him $1 for his efforts. Ri comes to his side advocating about what a thorough cleaning job he did.  

Patty came in town to watch M&M while we went to Cancun last week. She lost her phone the day before her arrival and she was upset she’d have to buy a new one. While she was taking Ri to school one morning, Ri found Patty’s phone hidden in the car seat. Patty was so relieved. She offered Ri $5 for finding it. Ri’s response: “you keep it Grandma for when we go to the lake this Summer.” Mario later found out Patty offered $5 to Ri. His response: “What?! I didn’t have a chance to try to find it in Grandma’s car and get $5. Not fair!”

Jon and I arrived home from Cancun. We had bought a couple of drinks at the airport and I had gotten two Mexican coins back from the cashier. I slipped them in my pocket without looking at them. As Ri and Mario opened the last of their souvenir gifts, I remembered the coins. I took them out and handed one to Ri and one to Mario. Ri looked at it and said “cool, a $5 coin.” Mario looked at his and said “wait, mine is only $1.” Ri looked at me with a concerned look. She immediately handed her $5 coin to Mario and told him she’d trade. I stopped her arm from reaching his hand. But he had already rejected her offer. It’s like he innately knew there wasn’t anything he was going to do with pesos here in the US so why use his good will on that exchange with Ri. Or, for all I know, he innately knew that $5 pesos wasn’t even worth $1 in US currency so why bother. It would not surprise me a bit.

Cancun 2014

I never thought I’d complain about the heat after the Winter we have had this year. But I returned from my morning run in Cancun sweating and feeling nauseous because of the sun beaming down on me. I think my body was in shock after running in 5 degree weather the last two months. But that was the only hot weather complaint I had while on our annual Cancun vacation with Jon’s work folks.
We left on Wednesday morning at 4:30 am (I braved 10 degree weather in shorts with the excitement of landing in 80 degree weather). We arrived at the hotel at 11 am, did our Chevy Chase Vacation head bobbing on the balcony of our room while taking in the ocean, and headed down to swim. We had a blast playing in the waves. Meanwhile, Ri called us four times in a row to tell us how much she missed us. Mario was perfectly content with Grandma Ionno but Ri missed having us around her. We better take that in while we can because I have a feeling that may not continue in a couple of years.
We hung out a good deal with Jon’s friend Craig and his wife Julie. Julie and I tease Jon and Craig about their bromance but it is quite darling. They told Julie and me that they take care of one another – when one is having a bad day, the other lifts him up. And when Craig heard Jon ordering a coke at McDonald’s one morning, he counseled him on making better choices. Precious. Julie talked to me about Pure Barre and how much she loved it. I think that will be my new adventure in exercise…. They are a sweet couple and we all laughed a lot when we were together.

Jon and I engaged in our normal routine: I get up and workout, we meet for the killer breakfast buffet (Ri would adore it), we jump in the ocean and swim, we get massages, we jump back in the ocean, we eat dinner, we crash. Not a bad life. I even swam with a shark this year! I didn’t mean to by any means…. I was looking for shells a ways down the beach and stood up to find a three foot shark swimming by me. I froze and let him continue to circle me and when he moved away a third time, I darted onto the beach. I couldn’t wait to tell Jon and Mario! And Jon experienced a first at the beach, too. He got a pedicure! His feet were baby soft and he had to admit he loved it. I imagine he will be sneaking away at lunch to get one every three weeks. He did have to endure his guy friends giving him grief about his robe though. The front desk lady gave him a super short one to wear even after he asked for another. When he walked into the waiting area, his buddy Phil shook his head and said “Jon, you just made my day.” His other friend told him that the robe looked like it would fit his twelve year old daughter. Nothin’ like guy friends to calm your anxiety. When we got up to the room, there was a present laying there for Jon – a toddler-size robe compliments of “The Guys”. We laughed for ten minutes straight.
Jon’s boss, Jim tried to teach us to body surf to no avail. The man is like balsa wood the way he rides a wave nearly into shore. Jon and I made it about five feet from where the wave crested.
We missed hanging with Dave and Jen and Joe and Lydia – our Michigan buddies. Our schedules never lined up except when Jen and I got to dance to our Violent Femmes song in the pool Friday night. We are gonna need some time on Dave’s boat this Summer….


Patty cranked out four straight days with the kiddos, god love her! Maria got strept throat on Thursday. She called us up barely able to speak but mustering up the words to tell us that “this is the time when she most needs her parents near her.” Talk about knowing how to give a guilt trip…! When we arrived home on Saturday night (a day early between Ri’s strept and the snowmageddon predicted for Sunday), these posters were hanging:

I love how this one has our ages.

And this one poses questions to us (answers: I’d rather eat with Michael Jackson and Jon would rather eat a snail).
We got the most warm and welcoming hugs from the munchos when we stepped in the door (we need to leave more often).
And Rocco was in heaven with his doggy pals at the farm. As Jorge commented “Rocco likes Winter.”

All is back to normal again: kids, Rocco, 48 year old dad and 42 year old mom are back at home together waiting for Spring to come.

Pittsburgh weekend

It started with a German Shepherd and a little mutt jumping in the back of the Volvo. Our trip to Pittsburgh to visit Aunt Sarah and Jorge was awesome on so many levels including the hysterical ride in the Volvo with the kids in the back seat nuzzling up to Stella and Mona until Stella tried to jump over the seat and Sarah jumped in the back to school her. Ri and I laughed so hard.

We made it to Sar’s apartment in one piece. We decided to forego the kids museum because we got in later than we expected and because the kids were much more into hanging out with Sarah. We decided to head to the animal shelter because the kids were wanting to hold a dog and Sar and I were each secretly thinking maybe we would take one home (Jon, meanwhile made me swear that I would not engage in such activity).
The shelter was clean and did not contain the usual musty-dog smell of a shelter. It had to be privately owned. We looked at all the doggies in their kennels and quickly decided we wanted to hold Paquita, a chihuahua. We approached the front desk attendant and asked to get him out.

“You have to fill out this paperwork first.”

It was two pages of questions. The lady read over my responses and quickly pushed the paper to the side.

“We don’t allow adoptions farther than 75 miles away.”

Sarah and I looked at each exasperated. We just wanted to hold Paquita. We knew what to do. Sarah filled out the paperwork as if she was going to buy a dog. The attendant knew exactly what we were doing. She started to grill us with questions and then chirped “we don’t have anyone to show you a dog until later.” Sar and I would not be stopped. Sar filled out another piece of paper to see a kitten. After ten minutes, we were in a room with a grey-colored kitty. The kids fought over who could hold her. Sar and I cracked up over the paranoid attendant checking in on us every three minutes. Not exactly what we expected but it was all worth it when we headed to the door and found big ol’ plump bunnies. They were too cute with their double chins and short legs.

The kids were dying to see the hotel after that so Sar dropped us off while she got the dogs. They knew exactly what to do once we checked in – they got on the elevator, found the room, opened the door, scoped out the room and put on their bathing suits. We took a quick swim and met Sar downstairs for a trip to the downtown fountain.

The kids took turns holding Mona as we walked from Market Square to the fountain. Market Square is a quaint little dining area with a center courtyard. I really liked downtown Pittsburgh. You could see the inside of the baseball stadium from our walk. The hills were magnificent with houses peppered all over them. Trains clamored past us. I love old downtowns.
Sar told the kids they could wade in the fountains and they wasted no time. Mario went in up to his chin and Ri quickly followed. They had many admirers, including the dogs.




After soaking themselves, we walked over to the Reflective Pool for more “wading.” Sar and I were chatting when Mario came out with his fist balled up. He opened it to reveal a load of change (mostly pennies) that he had gathered. “This is awesome, mom!” Soon after that, a policeman stopped on his bike and chastised Sar and I for letting M&M in the pool (it’s not allowed; I told the kids that they had one cool mom letting them engage in illegal activities). As soon as they got out, Mario started whining about being cold. I knew it.
I carried him back to the car while Ri walked without one complaint (she could last in the Arctic with no issues). We were almost to the car when Ri noticed a horse-drawn carriage. She begged for us to take a ride and I could not say no. Sar stood back with the dogs and we hopped in. The lady waved Sar over and yelled “you can get in with your dogs!” We couldn’t believe it. There we all were in a carriage riding through downtown.


Ri was in heaven and kept repeating “this is the best!” After the ride, we traveled back to Shadyside, changed at Sarah’s, and headed up the street for Mexican. Sar ordered fish tacos much to my concern but I found out that I love them. They were delicious. Mario took two bites of his quesadilla and passed out on my lap.

Sar and I got some quality sister time in at the restaurant which was my heaven. Then she got to try out Mario’s scooter on the way home. She cranked it with Ri even doing a jump! When we got home, Ri begged to stay with Sar. We explained to her there would be no breakfast buffet or swimming. She decided to go with me. On the way home, Sar called complaining that she missed the Ri-ster. I asked Ri if she wanted to go back and she jumped up in her seat and shouted “yes!” So I drove her back to Sarah’s and Mario and I went to our room and slept soundly together all night.
We woke up the next morning at 8 (beautiful) and went swimming. He raced me in the pool (swam four laps like it was nothing) and performed “magic” in the hot tub (he waved his hands underwater and made ripples). We were both starved by 9:30 and devoured some waffles and bacon at the buffet (Mario commented “Ri is going to be so mad she missed this.”).
We said goodbye to the hotel and booked it over to Sarah’s. The whole crew was there. Ri loved spending the night with Sar; she slept with the dogs and then with Sarah and Jorge in their full size bed. There is no way Jon and I would have slept.
The family drove to Frick Park for a Sunday hike with the dogs. It was a typical Menkedick hike full of inclines and great finds – touch-me-nots for the kids to squeeze, daddy long legs, beetles, and a snake in the porta potty.





We were famished when we left the park and darted straight to a quaint brunch restaurant in the Point Break? neighborhood. It had ridiculously yummy food – frittatas, pork and slaw omelette, salmon watermelon salad, and chocolate waffles. We ate and laughed and guessed who sang songs that Ri named.
We took a walk around Sar’s neighborhood after brunch and found a darling street with shops. I loved a card shop called Kards Unlimited. It had New Yorker cards and a ton of others. I could have sat in there for two hours.
Dad attempted to ride Mario’s scooter, which provided much laughter. Actually, I think his nickname should now be Speed Racer. He moved on that thing.

We left Pittsburgh at 4 and got home by 7:20 (with a stop at the gas station for ice cream and potato chips even). Exhausted and spent, we walked in the house to hugs from Jon and Patty.

Another weekend well spent – goodbye Pittsburgh and Spahr Road – we are lobbying hard for a Sarah and Jorge move to Columbus!

Bears and sushi

Sarah and Jorge returned from Yellowstone and Glacier with limbs intact – even after walking right by a grizzly! Oh, the stories they had to intrigue Maria and Mario.

Mario drags Jorge everywhere as he does with any male that comes to the house. Jorge is a very good sport playing basketball one minute and fighting with Ben Ten figures the next. Maria waits for Sarah to talk about her adventures and most importantly, to open up Sarah’s Mac computer photo shop. The photo shop lets you contort your face in all sorts of lovely ways. This was a beauty of a picture from the shop last night when we chose “Alien.”


Sarah had an awesome slide show of their trip full of pictures of the mountainsides, sunsets, gorgeous wildflowers, moose and bears. God love ’em, they go for it when they decide to hike and they take great pictures. The bear pictures obviously peaked the kids’ interests but I think they fell more in love with the little chunky chipmunk peeking over a rock because he was “so adorable.”


We splurged on sushi for dinner. Spicy tuna, dragon, and spicy salmon rolls – yum. Maria braved a bite but promptly spit it out. “I will stick with macaroni and cheese” she declared. We sat around the kitchen table and talked about our trip to Michigan and the sand dunes Sar and I used to tackle when we vacationed as kids. It was a treat having my sis and Jorge over for dinner. M&M did not want the night to end begging to spend the night with them at the apartment. Sar and Jorge weren’t quite prepared for that action yet but they better get ready for Jon and me to send them to Pittsburgh for a weekend sometime soon ( if they can handle bears they can handle M&M!).


Partyin’ in Kentucky


Mario lived his dream of being a superstar last night. He danced all by himself on the dance floor with the entire wedding party and guests watching and cheering his every move. The DJ asked me Mario’s name and I told him. He went back to his stand and yelled in the microphone “Let’s hear it for Mario!” Mario turned to me in disbelief. He was charged!

The DJ challenged the guests to a dance-off with Mario and this gorgeous southern belle took him on. She kicked and punched the air like Mario, did the robot like him, and jiggled her hips. But he pulled out a cartwheel on her and she gave up and bowed down to him.

“Did I win, mom?” he asked me later in the evening. The kid never fails to find competition.

Maria, meanwhile was persevering through pain. She wore “high heels” with her dress and they were killing her feet (like all heels do!). I kept telling her to take them off but she’d reply “mom, it’s a wedding and I’m in a dress; I can’t take off my heels.” She certainly doesn’t take after her mom who wears gym shoes with her dress! It scares me that she was willing to deal with the pain of heels in order to remain in high fashion – god help us.


We also got in some quality hotel pool and hot tub time – Maria stood on Peepaw’s shoulders in the pool and Mario acted like a fighting superhero in the hot tub jumping from side to side with his fist outstretched. We also got our money’s worth at the breakfast buffet filling up on waffles, eggs, sausage and fruit loops. Massive carbs – just what I needed for a four hour drive home.

We stopped over at Aunt Kathy’s condo before we headed home – Maria got to see the married couple before they took off to Jamaica (she’s still blushing over Miles’ comment that he’d save her a dance at the reception ( when he asked her later she was too embarrassed)). Kathy had Krispy Kreme donuts and chick-a-filet sandwiches – who can resist that action?! I felt like I was in a coma after taking those down and would have paid top dollar for a chauffeured ride home.

But thank goodness for five-hour energy drinks – I was back to normal in no time flying up I-71 to Columbus and listening to M&M interchange between begging to go back to the hotel and ask ing how much longer to home every ten minutes. I knew I should have gotten some Advil with my five-hour energy drink.

Driving the Munches


Does this crew crack me up or what?!

My sis is back in town with her hubby, Jorge, and her cuddly monster of a dog, Stella, and they agreed to take my two darling children to the farm for the next couple of days since our sitter threw up all day while babysitting them yesterday. Poor guy must have gotten Maria’s bug last week – he barely made it out of the car after he picked up Mario from school and had the pleasure of throwing up all over our sidewalk while the kids screeched with depraved excitement.

So, I had an afternoon full of frantic phone calls trying to find child care for the rest of the week. Luckily, Meg and dad came through – this will be a test for Maria Grace – it is supposed to be in the 90’s the next couple of days and there is no AC at the farm. I’m quite sure she will be naked through the afternoons!

So back to that retro sis of mine (Maria told her she looked like she was living in the 80’s and Sar told her that her look was “retro” – not 80’s). She arrived promptly at 8:30 am to pick up the munches (Sar’s endearing name for them) who had been begging for her to arrive since 6:25 am. They were excited to spend two hours with her in the car and did not even ask for a movie on the way. Sarah should be honored.

She called me half way into the trip and let me know she was teaching them the names of colors in Spanish. She also was laughing hysterically at the stories coming out of the munches’ mouths. Maria told her about a news clip where a man was naked on a street in Florida and they had to blur his privates. Mario chimed in and added: “that was me!”

Yeah, I am quite sure she was kept amused the entire ride and I am quite sure the munches were in seventh heaven.

Tuscany for Five

Out for our first trip in Tuscany

The girls and I finally arrived in Tuscany two Saturday mornings ago at 10 am local time (4 am Ohio time) after an 11 hour flight from New York (we got delayed close to 2 hours on the runway and then poor Kathy had to sit in an Exit row weat because I had elected one not realizing the seats don’t recline back and we would be directly across from the lavatories!).  The plane trip only produced a bit of turbulence but I still popped a Sominex to pass out and avoid my fear of flying and my claustrophobia. 

We rocked it out after the flight – had no problem getting our bags and booking our rental car and within an hour or so we were out in the Italian sun.  Ericka, our travel agent (literally and figuratively), drove us out of the rental car agency with such style that the Italians driving past us had no clue that we were Americans (until a motorcycle rider zoomed past us and scared us all half to death) – Excellente!  We stopped at a restaurant on the way to the villa where a short, gregarious old Italian man greeted us and escorted us to a table cloaked with a white tablecloth and tiny vases of flowers and pictures of Italian countryside surrounding it.  He spoke Italian so quickly that we all took a step back and looked like deer in the headlights.  He then took a breath and said the all too famous Italian word “Vino?”  We understood that and ordered some red.  He brought it out to us and we quickly poured it into our glasses only realizing after the fact we had poured it into our water glasses.  We saw him chuckle on the side.  We drank our wine, ate our brushetta with the most amazing olive oil of all time, and enjoyed our chicken and grilled peppers and pasta.  We dragged ourselves from our chairs and back to the car for the final lag of our drive.

We got to the villa after two hours of winding roads and speedy drivers and it could not have been more worth it.  Absolutely amazing.  We got swept away upon stepping out of the car with the stone walls and the ivy and the grape vines and the potted herbs.  Jude and Richard, the Villa Cappella owners, came outside to greet us with their little pup, Luna.  They talked with us about the villa’s renovation from a pig sty and horse stables to this charming villa with a patio and portico and every type of tree: hazelnut, chestnut, fig, persimmon, and walnut.  They poured us our first (but not last) glass of Prosecco and offered us bread sticks.  We toasted to an exhilarating week in Italy.  And so it began…

A view of the fields outside of the villa

Jude showed us around the house and had to find joy in our gasping and cooing in each new room we saw.  The villa housed all sorts of African artifacts, Tuscan pottery and tiles, Canadian artwork, Roman statutes and fresh flowers.  The downstairs had a room with a king sized bed that Ericka took.  It also had a room with two twin beds that Jill got.  The upstairs had a room with two twins in it that Lisa and I shared and a room with a king that Kath got.  All of the rooms had fresh flowers and a window with a heavy wood door that, when opened, allowed the flood of Tuscan light to enter.  The smells could have been bottled up and sold back home for a pretty penny.

We got situated and relaxed in the kitchen with fresh grapes, bread sticks, juicy tomatoes, and cheese.  The next morning we took off for the Mediterranean sea – Lisa drove us and used the stick shift with sheer perfection.  We went to a beach off the beaten path in Tonga and felt right at home as we laid down our towels and bathed in the sun.  I found some killer rocks and shells in

The Sea

the glass-like sea.  The Mediterranean sand was black and smooth and the water was chilled but not freezing (a nice change from the Cancun rocky beach that Jon and I head to every year although I did miss the big Cancun waves).  I even got my girlfriends to do O-H-I-O for Ohio State (which is a feat for three Cincinnati girls who love X and UC).  After the beach, we hit Argenterio, a small marina town, for shrimp and rice and red wine.  We shopped around the town and I scored two big superballs – one with a skull and one multi-colored – perfect for my two munchballs!  I loved this town because it had superball machines rather than gumball machines everywhere you turned – it took me back to my childhood at IGA. 


On Monday we went to Siena to take in the magnificent Duomo and view the breath-taking scene from the top of the building.  We enjoyed wine and potato chips (yes, potato chips!) outside of the Duomo and stared at each other in awe of the fact that we were sitting in such a cafe sans kids, work and hubbies.  What a feat.  We started our ride back home rather late and by the time we hit the exit for our dinner spot it was dark and hard to find.  But, as we found throughout the trip, Obama’s presidential campaign quote fit us well – Yes We Can!  We found our restaurant and settled in for wine, bread, pork chops, vegetables dripping in olive oil and ricotta cheese and chocolate sauce for dessert.  We got home at 10:30 pm (Jude is still amazed that we stayed out past dark nearly every night) and downloaded lots of pictures. 

On Tuesday, we got up early (8 am is early on this vacation!) to head to the weekly fish market in town.  We ordered a cappuccino at the coffee “bar” and croissants and watched MTV videos on the tv.  We purchased our fish (salmon (which was not even for sale but the butcher must have known Americans liked salmon because she brought it out when we walked in), whitefish, and calamari).  We also bought some veggies (eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onions) and we headed back home with our dinner for the evening.  I went for a good run up the gravel road next to us.  It led to a bed and breakfast that had to house hunters as we heard their hunting dogs every night.   We left for Torre Alfina when I returned and Kath, Lisa and I hiked through a volcanic forest.  We got lost more times than we would have desired but we plugged our way through and made it out (Yes, We Can!).  There were a few times when we felt like we knew where we were and we’d take pictures and laugh and then ten minutes later we’d feel lost and it would grow silent again.   We treated ourselves to huge gelatos after the hike (choccolata and fragas for me) and rested at one of the best gelato shoppes in Tuscany.  Jill and E met up with us at the shoppe.  Gelato was our true addiction on this trip. 

The magical forest

After the hike, we headed back home to grill out our fish and veggies.  Jill did a kick-ass job cooking the fish and my other girls helped me cook the risotto and onions and tomatoes (I have a new-found desire to cook once back home)!  We ate on the patio with the flourescent moon shining down on us and the crickets serenading us.  After drinking glasses of wine and stuffing our bellies full of sea life, we topped the night off with the movie “Knocked Up” in our pjs on the couch. 

It felt like my head just hit the pillow when Jill came in at 6:15 am to wake us up for the train to Florence on Wednesday.  We dragged ourselves out of our comfy Tuscan beds and out the door to the car and to the train station in Orvieto.  Jill and I got a cappuccino (“Un cappuccino, gracie”) and a chocolate croissant (yum!) for the trip.  Two and a half hours later we arrived in Florence amidst a throng of tourists.  Of course, four days into our trip and having traveled throughout Tuscany and met many native Italians, we did not feel like tourists any longer so they were quite annoying to us.  A man from Utah approached us and asked if he could join our group – we ditched him after ten minutes.  A group of women from Denver asked us how to get to the Academy (we told them and they did not believe us –


too bad for them because we were right).  But we continued to stay in our small group of three traversing the streets easily locating magnificent and gorgeous sights (Neptune, Duomo, plazas, the statute of David, Bonacelli marble statutes).  We stopped at an outside cafe for pizza and pasta (pasta with white sauce and peas and mushrooms and pasta with red sauce and cheeses) that took us to another world – it was fabulous.  We ate on the piazza and watched all of the people pass by and commented on the statutes looking down at us.  Horse-drawn carriages passed by us.  We ended the day with gelato as we walked back to the train station.  You rarely see anyone sitting down eating their gelato – everyone walks through the streets with their cones, licking and looking at the sights, giving both their taste buds a wonderful experience as well as their eyes.

Views driving to Monticino

On Thursday, we all hopped in the car to Penzia to try out their world-famous pecorino cheese.  Can any food in this country be bad?  The cheese melted onto the bread and was like candy with blackberry jam on it.  We also enjoyed wild boar – we had to at least try it since we get to hear the barking dogs every morning and night. Surprisingly it was not bad (tasted like roast beef).  After lunch, we crossed the street to a wine shop and got a taste of Gappo – the Italian liquor that makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire (“Liquid Fire” as Lisa calls it).  It is horrible!  Two shots of that and I would be unable to function.  We had to take a breather after that drink but then we headed to Monticino for some wine tastings.  The tour of the first winery (Fanti) floored us because of the amount of care and time taken in producing the wine.  I kept thinking of Jon’s cousin Mario and his home-made wine.  I have a new-found appreciation for that process.  Monticino gave us a treasured gift at the end of our trip – the sunset.  We watched the sun go down from a stone wall at the top of the city.  It only lasted about three minutes but it was gorgeous.  We walked back to the car without a word to say – the experience could conjure up none.  We ate a “to-go” pizza that night (When Jude told us that no Italian pizzeria would give us pizza “to go” we had to find one!) and watched “Under the Tuscan Sun” since many of us had not seen it.

Mushroom Risotto

Friday was a bittersweet day for us because we knew it was our last day at the villa.  We walked through the market in Aquapendente and drove to Orvieto.  Orvieto is a quaint little hilltop town with classy shoppes and lots of narrow streets and pop-up views of Tuscan hills and trees.  We bought our obligatory souvenirs and enjoyed our never-ending gelato.  We hurried back home to meet our Italian cook who we had hired to make us a four-course Italian meal on our last night in Aquapendente.  We arrived to the sweet aromas of the Italian kitchen, and made our way up-stream to Jude’s house for a bon-voyage glass of wine and figs with walnuts and gorgonzola.  The figs tasted like nothing I have had before.  If politeness was not a barrier, I would have emptied the tray in my mouth all at once.  After Jude’s, it was back for more delicious food at our villa.  Arugula, parmesan and cured beef salad, risotto with mushrooms, chicken breast and grilled peppers, and chocolate mousse with cookie wafers.  What should have been a three-hour meal took us under an hour to consume!  We were starved and the food was way too good.  We laughed so hard at this fact – typical Americans gobbling their food up without taking any rest.  Ahh, c’est la vie.  We drank wine to extend the time out and then found ourselves on Faceb0ok looking up past friends from high school (“oh, look at her! “yikes, look at him!”). 

A quintessential Tuscan scene

On Saturday morning, we packed up the car and headed for Rome.  What a nightmare.  Actually, it could have been a much bigger nightmare if it wasn’t for Lisa’s spectacular driving through the chaotic Roman streets.  We missed a highway turn-off due to the complete lack of signs before the turn-off telling us where to go.  We have the luxury in the States of having signs that tell us when an exit is coming and where it will lead us.  Not so much in Rome.  However, because we are five intelligent and resourceful women, and we found our way back to where we needed to be and got to the airport with ten minutes to spare on the car rental (before we were charged another $140 euro). 

Rome felt like we had been thrown into a coliseum to fight for our life.  Ok, maybe I exaggerate a bit but it did feel overwhelming with the number of tourists pushing their way around and the high decibel levels compared to the countryside.  After years of hearing about the Vatican and the Pantheon and the fountains, it was an experience to see them in person.  But as amazing and ornate as the Vatican and the Basilica and the Pantheon were, I still gravitated to the small humble church at the top of the Spanish Steps.  It felt like home; if I had lived in the 15th century, I would have been a peasant rather than a royal.  We all got our picture at the Fountain of Trevi tossing a coin into the water and we all got our last gelato – extra big – at the corner gelato store.  And to think I had my reservations about going on this trip….  I was slammed with work, trying to sell my house, trying to renovate and move into a new house, and just tired.  But my girlfriends worked on this trip, nonetheless, and never gave me a bit of slack for not participating as much.  To the contrary, they called to check in on my mental well-being (thank god) and kept me up to speed on the latest about the trip.  This trip provided just what I needed before my 40th birthday – time to reconnect with my girlfriends and myself – to reflect on what I want in my fortieth decade – to appreciate all that I have in my life – and to laugh hysterically with my soul sisters. 

The girls

I wonder what 50 will bring?!

Running (after my sis)

Sarah and Stella

Years ago when my younger sis (by 10 years) was in high school and deeply involved in sitting at the coffee shop with her friends philosophizing about life as she knew it at age 16, I was the workout monster in the family.  I ran, lifted weights, biked, taught aerobics.  And no one could beat me in a run.  My sis, Sarah, was known for her writing and her love of books.  One of her favorite activities was sitting in the bathtub with her favorite book and reading for two hours.  My brother loved his music, and should adore my parents for letting him spend countless hours in the basement jammin’ away on his drums and sax.  When we went on family hikes, I was the one with ten rocks in my pockets to give me an extra struggle as I climbed up a hill.

Meg and I braving the steps when we visited for Sarah's wedding

Then my sis grew up.  And as she aged, she found a love for running.  Afterall, she has the perfect runner shape – 100 pounds when wet and just tiny!  Her running has been a constant for her as she traveled to different countries and engaged with new people and new work.  I will never forget going to Oaxaca, Mexico to visit her.  She had told me about a course that she ran almost daily with her dog, Stella.  I couldn’t wait to check it out when I arrived.  The first morning after I landed, we awoke to a gorgeous 65 degree day.  She asked if I was ready to go.  ‘Of course”, I thought. 

We walked to the steps that we had to climb to get to the path that led to the trail.  I had heard rumors about these steps from Meg and my dad who had visited Sarah earlier in the year.  “Horrid” and “killer” were adjectives I remember hearing upon their return.  We ran up all of them (at least 150) to a plateau that overlooked some of Oaxaca.  “Ok”, I thought, “I can hang although my heart was beating quite fast.  We continued up a brick path to the trail.  One long hill.  When we got to the trail, I was again winded but continued to smile and assure Sarah I was ok.  Then, the trail.  Heaven help me.  Every time you thought you had reached the top, you found out it was just a short plateau with more hill up ahead.  I was sweating through every pore of my body, and my legs burned like they had been thrown in a fire pit.   

I thought “I have met my match.”

When Sar and I returned home, I laid on the bed massaging my legs and getting my breathing back to normal.  It was at that moment that I knew my reign as workout monster of the Menkedick family was, if not over, at least shared with my sis. 

Sar and I on a bus trip in Oaxaca

So, it is that realization and determination to keep up with her that led me to agree to run the Columbus Marathon with her in October.  She is already cranking out 10-15 miles with no problem.  I have been trying to run more on the mornings that Jon is home and I am able to get out.  I used to run 3-5 miles and then spend a decent amount of time lifting at the gym.  Now, I am running 6-10 and doing less lifting.  I went out this morning and took the bike course downtown and back for ten miles.  In the beginning of the run, you always feel so strong and so free – zoning out to NPR and thinking about events from the past week, what you have going on in the future (a side note – for a mom of two, this freedom and time away is crucial).  By the middle of the run, when you are farthest away from the house, you start to wonder why you went so far and your legs start to wonder with you.  By the end of the run, you just keep repeating “You can do it. You can do it. Don’ think about it anymore, just keep going.”  Then you finish.  And you have that gratification down in the deepest part of your soul that you completed what you set out to complete.  Your body feels wasted and tired but also surprisingly refreshed – you worked all of those toxins out and as spent as you are, you are also so alive.

Nonetheless, as much as I appreciate the thrill of a good, long run, that good, long run has consisted of 10 miles – not 26.  I am not so headstrong to go the 26 in October if I am hurting (my IT band has not been cooperating with me lately).  Of course, I am fully aware that because I am a Menkedick, I can talk the talk now but come race day, I will need to be completely unable to stand on my legs before I will give up. 

I will just have to depend on that little sis of mine to take care of me.

Entering Steeler Country

It was a simple choice for Spring Break.  No, not Miami, not Charleston, not Disney but rather – Pittsburgh, PA!  Not that anyone would be wondering why Pittsburgh but just in case….

Aunt Sarah lives there!  And Uncle Jorge.  And Stella and Mona – their dogs. 

Pittsburgh also is home to a few hotels with pools and hot tubs. 

Combine Sarah, Jorge, the dogs and a hotel pool and you have a fantasy Spring Break for me and the kiddies. 

Mario playing Wii and taking forever to get ready for the road!

Mario and I headed out of Columbus at 9:30 am on Thursday morning after I took a morning run (knowing that would be my last free hour without kids by my side), got Mario to stop playing Wii basketball and get dressed, and made a bag of snacks for the road (always a must).  I had loaded the stroller in the car the night before.  And Grandma Meg’s present. I had gotten our duffel bag packed full of clothes, barbies, blankies, and swimsuits and placed it on the couch.  I had packed the camera, money, and stuffed animals in my backpack.  Ready, set, go.  Mario grabbed his book bag filled with the most random items: plastic superhero figurines, socks, bathing suit, and small beach ball.  We gave Cy a big doggie hug and took everything outside to the garage.  Mario, my wild child who cannot simply open the car door and sit in his seat, twirled around in circles and hit his head against the side of the car as I put my book bag in the front seat.  I reached back to pick him up and console him.  When he finally calmed down, I sat him in his seat with his backpack and his pillow pet.  I went around to my side and climbed in the front.  We were off!

Mario provided commentary to me about his power rangers movie on the way out to the farm.  He also kept asking when we would be in “Mexico.”  I think he correlates Mexico with Aunt Sarah since she was there the majority of Mario’s life and he cannot seem to grasp the fact that she has now moved to Pittsburgh.  As we travelled through the countryside looking at cows and horses, my mind suddenly fixated on our duffel bag.  I looked in my rear view mirror and could see everything behind me.  That would be impossible with a big red duffel bag on top of the stroller.  I pulled the car over and opened the back of the car.  No duffel. I left it in the garage as i consoled Mario.

“Sh–, da–…” 

Mario consoling me.

After a slew of inappropriate words outside of the car, I plunked back in my seat.  Mario immediately sensed my frustration.  I told him we forgot our bag with clothes in it and he replied “Mom, don’t worry, I packed my swim trunks in my book bag.” His words touched me, and I realized in the big scheme of this crazy life, there could be many worse situations to be in at that moment.  I laughed and reached my hand back to his hand giving him a kiss in the air.  We continued down the country road to Grandma Meg’s house.  I walked in the door and divulged my forgetfulness to Meg and Maria.  Maria’s reaction was diametrically opposed to Mario’s.  She wailed and then stuttered between sobs, “But, mom, my new bathing suit was in that bag!”  We played with Grandma Meg’s dog and cats, gave her some sweet birthday presents, and hit the road with a full bag of chocolate chip cookies (very dangerous). 

Maria hugging Mona after her good trick.

On to Pittsburgh.  Through Wheeling and past Cabela’s (Jon’s favorite).  When we hit Pittsburgh, we went through the Pitt Tunnel and over the bridge.  The kids interrupted their tv show to admire the sights for three seconds.  Finally, we found ourselves parking at Sarah’s apartment.  We hurried out of the car and into her place before our fingers and faces froze in the Pittsburgh air.  As soon as the door opened, big ol’ Stella and little darling Mona greeted us.  They jumped and yelped and flipped all over the hard wood floors.  Maria and Mario lapped it up.  Mario joined right in with the nonsense running all around and letting Stella jump on her even though Stella is nearly as tall as Mario.  Mario got an ear and eye cleaning 5 times over from Stella who thoroughly enjoyed licking all over his little head after she cornered him.  Maria, on the other hand, earned the nickname “Enforcer” by constantly issuing commands to the dogs and withholding love until they obeyed.  She attempted to teach them tricks (that Aunt Sarah has already taught them, thank god) and put on shows for us, the audience.  Poor Jorge – he is not at all used to this chaos and I am sure that our presence for even a half hour jettisoned the thought of kids far out of his mind!

Mario loving on Stella

After Aunt Sarah’s house, we ate lunch at Pamela\’s Diner.  Yum.  Absolutely delicious banana and granola pancakes with whipped cream and syrup.  Spinach and feta omelette. Onion rings.  Perfect vacation food.  After Pamela’s, we hit the local Target to get some clothes for Mario and me and a bathing suit for Maria Grace.  She chose a black two-piece.  Mario chose some striped overalls in a size too little because he likes to see his socks when he looks down.  After Target, Sarah and Jorge were ready for a little break so we dropped them off and headed to the hotel.  I love the enthusiasm that Maria and Mario bring to simply walking into a hotel.  They bounced all around the lobby while I checked in and ran to the elevator to push the button.  They spotted the pool. 

The Crew at Pamela's

“Mom, look at the pool.  It is right by the elevators so it is so convenient!”  Maria boasted.

Mario merely screeched “The pool! The pool!”

The disgruntled models posing in their suits.

We headed up to floor 6 after Maria let Mario hit the button in the elevator.  This action became a huge source of bargaining and compromise for the next two days as I guess in little kids’ worlds, pushing the button in the elevator is much more cool than pushing it outside of the elevator.  Overall, they did pretty good (with Maria giving into Mario a majority of the times). We stepped in our room (after Maria used the key card in it which Mario found no interest in until the last day) and both kids gasped with excitement.  It had a huge tv, a huge bed, a sofa and a coffee maker (Maria’s favorite).  We threw off our clothes and got in our suits.  

The hotel pool.  AKA, super chlorine-ridden pool.  It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon driving home that I realized how the amount of chlorine in that pool.  Red blotches grew all over my skin and I itched and hurt at the same time.  Maria and Mario did not have it quite as bad but we all still smelled like chlorine after 4 showers.  Nonetheless, it was worth it for the fun we had in the pool and the hot tub.  Maria actually jumped in the pool by herself for the first time and swam over to me at the other end of the pool.  Mario jumped in by himself with his swimmies on his arms and rose up from under the water with a half-scared, half-amazed look on his face that quickly turned to a huge smile.  Aunt Sarah came and played with us that first night acting like a shark with Mario on her back and allowing Mario to push her in the water while she stood “bored” on the side of the pool.  The kids adore her.

Loving the pool.

Sarah hit the road after the swim and we went down to the hotel restaurant for a quick bite.  Maria wanted both chicken fingers and nachos.  I promptly said “no” and the waiter looked at her sullen face and suggested that she could have chicken fingers with just a “few” nachos on the side.  Fifteen minutes later, he brought out four large chicken fingers and an entire plate of nachos with cheese.  Maria said “thank you” without me even having to prompt her!  We ate quickly because Mario was whining and complaining and took the remainder of our meals upstairs.  Maria loved eating in the room while watching tv (she is my child) – she got the roll away desk out and her chair and set up shop.  We fell asleep around 10:30 and woke at 7:30 – not bad for these two poor sleepers. 

Heading up the cathedral steps.

Friday consisted of  jam-packed, action-filled events with Aunt Sarah and Uncle Jorge.  We picked Sarah up at 9:15 and headed to the Cathedral of Learning where she teaches her undergrad course.  She had high hopes for us – to climb up 36 flights of stairs to the top of the cathedral.  Maria and Mario wanted to do it so badly but after 14, their little legs were stinging.  We agreed to make it to floor 15 and take the elevator.  We got to the 36th floor and it treated up to a sight of all of Pittsburgh.  The kids stared down and basked in their glory of climbing half way up the stairs.

Looking out at Pittsburgh

We got to wait outside of the cafe for a half hour while Sarah met with a student.  We people-watched and talked about what it would be like to be in college.  A lot of questions posed to me from Maria about what I did in college (I fibbed a bit about studying hard and never partying).  Finally, it was time to go to Aunt Sarah’s class.  We got there a few minutes early and Sarah was not there yet.  Here students were, however, and we introduced ourselves.  Maria got shy.  Mario stood on the chair in the front of the room and talked about how he loved basketball. 

Mario next to the T Rex

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is across the street so we headed over there to see the big dinosaur outside.  It wears a different scarf every other day (so I hear).  We decided to go see the dinosaur exhibit.   Four hours later, we left.  The museum housed a plethora of exhibits and kids’ activities.  They got to act like archeologists and dig for bones.  They got to see big mammals and little birds and dinosaur bones.  They got to learn facts about trees and stones in the Discovery Room and they touched fossilized dinosaur dung.  Yeah!

Maria during her archaeological dig

We left the museum for a long walk in Schenley Park with Sarah, Jorge and the pups.  What an incredible park to have so close to their disposal.  I felt like I had entered a state park.  A stream, rock bridge, trail, huge trees.  Maria walked the dogs through the entire park only getting help once in a while from Sarah or Jorge.  I carried Mario the entire way who had collapsed at the entrance from exhaustion.  My hips and shoulders felt like someone had stabbed them a million times at the end of the trip.  But so worth it.  We grabbed our suits after the park because we just needed a little more action and we headed to the pool with Sarah and Jorge.  Jorge became Maria’s servant shortly after we jumped in the water.  “Jorge, come now.” “Jorge, over here!”  And, Jorge earned his “uncle” title that afternoon by divulging Maria’s demands and playing with her incessantly until we all called it quits.  Sarah earned her title as well by sword fighting with Mario in the hot tub and submerging her head under when he won.  

The crew in the hot tub

To top off the day, we headed to The Church Brew Works, a restaurant housed in an old church.  We got there at 7 pm – way too late for the kids we would find out.  I knew it was a long shot that they would be good based on all of the hoopla from the day and no nappage but I was hopeful.  Within ten minutes of sitting down, Mario whined about his stomach hurting.  He sat on my lap the rest of the dinner intermittently crying or getting mad that we were still sitting there.  Maria turned on us, too, after her pasta and salad arrived and the salad had vinaigrette on it rather than ranch and her pasta was “yucky.”  She broke down.  We got her chicken fingers but by that time, it was too late.  Sarah, Jorge and I conversed to the extent possible and called it a night.  Again, I think we jettisoned Jorge’s desire for kids out another 10 years.

Maria lovin' the pool

The kids and I headed back to the hotel.  Mario was hurting from refusing to go to the bathroom and had diaper rash (his one ailment he is constantly prone to).  Maria begged to go to the pool.  I was hoping that the front desk had some type of diaper creme.  We went down and had no luck.  However, the girl at the front desk offered to go buy some for me.  What a godsend.  She has no clue what a wonderful gesture that was for me.  We watched Maria swim while we waited.  Maria did a good job playing on her own in the water – a good sign for this summer.

We headed to the room to apply the creme, and poor Mario cradled himself in my arms.  We sat there watching tv until we all fell asleep.  Mario awoke at midnight screaming hysterically.  It’s bad enough to be awakened at midnight by a screaming kid but even worse when you are in a hotel and know that people around you are shaking their heads and cussing at you under their breath.  I consoled him to the point where his crying became muffled, and then I made him pee in the toilet.  As I stood behind him trying to keep him quiet and asking him to try to go to the bathroom, he farted.  And that is when the fun began.  Poor moms.  How many of us have a similar story of getting crapped on, literally?!  Rancid, disgusting, putrid – the only words that can begin to describe what I had to clean off of me and the bathroom floor.  An hour later, I climbed into bed with Mario sleeping soundly.  At least he slept the rest of the night. 

Mario with his water wings

Mario woke before Maria so I took advantage of the Cartoon Channel so I could rest my eyes a little longer.  Maria woke at 8:15 am, which is the latest she has ever slept (thanks to that dog walking  the day before).  We went straight to the pool for our last vacation swim – I knew better than to mention breakfast with the hopes that we would swim for a mere half hour and then they’d be too hungry to continue.  The plan failed.  One and a half hours later, I finally got them to go and that was only because a maintenance man came in to check the chlorine and he went along with my act when I asked him if the pool was closing.  I should have slipped him a $20 on my way out. 

Hanging with the pups

We headed back to our room, got changed, and headed out to Aunt Sarah’s for one last jaunt with the crazy pups.  When we arrived, books and papers covered the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and glass of water amidst them.  Joan Didion. The Best of Nonfiction Writing.  The New Yorker magazine.  I admire their passion for writing and reading.  Sarah told me they got up and immediately began reading and writing.  A foreign life to me at this stage of my life, but one that always inspires me to continue to ask questions and express myself and access my goals.  And I have learned that one of my goals at this stage of my life is to enjoy and cherish this time with my kids, and to provide them with experiences that will help them see the world outside of our home and neighborhood.  As hard as these “vacations” can be, I feel exhilerated at the end of them because of the experience of it all. 

Giving Stella one more treat

Mario saying goodbye to Mona

And back to Sarah’s and Jorge’s lives, Maria and Mario interrupted their lives that morning as they bombarded Sarah with a ton of questions about the pups, ran around the apartment with them, and fed them enough treats for a week.  Nonetheless, Sarah and Jorge welcomed the two tornadoes with open arms and wide smiles, and provided them with much love before our departure.  We said our goodbyes with the dogs a’ barkin’ and headed back to Columbus, Ohio.  The West Va. gas station (West Va. is Mama Ionno’s birthplace) greeted us and provided us with Cheetos for Mario, Chex Mix for Maria and CornNuts for me to get us home.  We had a brief layover with Pee-paw at the farm (long enough for Maria and I to take a hike and find deer bones that Maria wants to take to school and for Mario to see the horses). 

Mario passed out

Maria watching Berenstein Bears with her pillow pet

Mario fell asleep within ten minutes of hitting the road to Columbus.  He slept until we were ten minutes from home, which is when Maria knocked off.  We walked in the back door and experienced that mixed feeling of relief in being home and sadness in knowing that vacation was over.  We all sat on the couch and relived the trip with dad.  Later that evening, Maria laid in her bed looking distraught.  “I want to be back in Pittsburgh” she sulked.  And folks laughed when we told them Pittsburgh for Spring Break.