An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Winning Drive

Most Fridays Joe drives Timothy to school just so they can hear the 92.7 WKSX sports trivia question.

Today's question: "The NFL and AFC Championship games are this Sunday and winners go to the Super Bowl. What are the trophies given to the winners of those games?"

Answer: George S. Halas and Lamar Hunt trophies

Now, did you know that? Joe did. He is a whiz at sports, music, and history trivia. Timothy, official telephone dialer, was thrilled ... especially when they announced their names on air.

Today they won a baseball style jersey, a 2018 Farmer's Almanac, and a $10 restaurant voucher.

This wasn't their first win. They also won exactly 35 days ago ... only because they are limited to one win a month ;-)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Year of Moving Forward in Reverse

It was early in the morning, and my goal was to find the bow of the ship and have a Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet moment. I wanted to stand at the railing while the sun was rising, feel the ocean breezes, and take in the endless sea.

I wanted to feel like I was flying.

Except, it didn’t happen that way.

If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, then you know how easy it is to get turned around, especially if you’re walking down an interior corridor without a visual reference from a window. That morning I left our cabin, walked up several flights of stairs, turned a corner here and went around there. I walked a long time until I climbed some iron stairs to a heavy metal door, opened it, and stepped outside to the bow of the ship.

Except it wasn’t the bow. It was the stern, so instead of watching the ship cut into the waves, I was watching the wake it created as it sailed to Cozumel.

And just like that I felt a little defeated. The very next day we would be celebrating New Year’s Eve, and the fact I was standing at the back of a ship instead of the front struck me as more than a little ironic considering the past year. It hadn’t been a good one for me.

Last January, with high hopes and a milestone birthday to look forward to, I embraced 2017 with enthusiasm, hope, and excitement. I felt great mentally, physically, and spiritually. I had plans, goals, dreams … but none of them materialized. Not one.

In March, after three months of gathering birth certificates, filling out applications, and setting a date with the Italian Consulate in Miami, I had to abandon my dream of legally claiming my Italian heritage and applying for dual citizenship.  In the end, due to the political situation and my husband’s security clearance, I had to let it go.

Then, one month later I was diagnosed with PVCs (premature ventricular contractions). While considered benign, I was having so many that they put me on medication, and just like that I went from taking a daily aspirin to now taking a pill twice a day and having to give up any and all caffeine. I was now someone who had a cardiologist. Suddenly, turning fifty didn’t feel empowering, but scary – a sign of bad things to come.

There were two trips to Little Rock, Arkansas to help our son get settled in his life there, trips which were successful in that we got everything done, but also fraught with tension, frazzled nerves, hurt feelings, and tears. Some of these issues still linger and I don't know how to make them go away.
There were discussions on where to send Timothy for high school, discussions in which I felt one way and my husband and son felt another and so it continued for several months until, in the end, I realized I was the one creating strife by refusing to not see another way. So I relented, and while I was grateful for the peace of coming together, I also felt a little defeated and more than a little tired.
It was a year of self doubt, and I questioned whether I was a good enough mother or if I had done enough to give our sons what they needed in this world. Then, returned articles, rejected essays, and a publishing dream in constant limbo made me wonder whether I should close down this blog or if I needed to stop writing altogether.

There were spiritual hardships, too. At church, in the Adoration Chapel, or at my kitchen table I prayed asking for clarity and direction, only to be given answers which I thought were promising but, in reality, resulted in more confusion and doubt. Truly, if I had to describe my spiritual journey during 2017 it would be like this: muddled, foggy, obscure, alone.
To be sure, there were moments of grace -- an unexpected trip to Colorado, a spring break in Washington DC, nighttime walks with Timothy, Friday lunches with Joe, day trips with friends, shopping with Jonathan, an afternoon in an art gallery with my guys -- and I held on to those, recognizing them as gifts they were meant to be.
So that morning on the ship, as I stood at the stern instead of the bow, as I looked backward instead of forward, I thought about the past year and Let It Go. I gathered broken bits and pieces of my heart and my soul, wrapped them with strings of hopes and dreams, and tossed the entire package into the sea. I then turned around and went down the iron steps. I turned a corner here and went around there; I went up several flights of stairs. I walked a long time until I came to a heavy metal door which I pushed opened … and this time stepped out onto the bow of the ship.

I stood at the railing. I watched the sun rise, felt the ocean breezes, and took in the endless sea.

I felt like I was flying.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Autism on the Seas: Where Vacations Come True

Yesterday in my cruise recap I briefly mentioned the services provided by Autism on the Seas, and since some of you wanted more information, I thought I'd share my sister's post in which she explains everything in detail. If you have a child with needs, look into this wonderful organization. I witnessed how wonderful they were with my nephew, and the therapists are the most loving and giving people. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: You can keep any of the world's leaders, presidents, kings, or authority figures. Put any one of those therapists in charge and the world would be a better place.

Anyway, below is the post from Laura on Perfectly Peter ...

On a chilly, blustery day somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, I sat on the deck of a cruise ship watching two young women in orange T-shirts lift a wheelchair-bound teenager out of his seat, carry him up a flight of stairs, and slide down a water slide with him.  I watched as his face reflected pure glee at the bottom of the slide.  The ladies lifted him out of the water and carefully placed him back in his wheelchair.  Then they did the whole thing again.  All to give this boy a chance to enjoy an activity that most kids take for granted.

For five days I watched these orange-clad men and women place the needs of special children ahead of their own needs.  I watched them engage with the children, play with them, hug them, sing to them, swim with them, eat with them, calm and soothe them, and keep them safe from dangers.  I watched them do all of these things with unfailing enthusiasm, endless cheerful energy, and obvious love for children not their own.  One of whom was my own son.

Who ARE these people, these Angels in Orange?

They are volunteer members of an organization called Autism on the Seas (AotS).  Putting it simply, AotS gives families of special needs children a chance to enjoy a cruise with as little hassle and worry as possible.  In collaboration with Royal Caribbean International (and other cruise lines), AotS offers cruise vacation services to accommodate adults and families living with special needs children, including Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and all other cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities.

How did I learn about this organization?

After going on a 3-night cruise in 2016, my husband and I concluded that we would never do it again with Peter unless we had help.  Navigating the ship, the lines, the elevators, and keeping him safe was stressful.  We had no free time to enjoy the ship’s activities because one of us would have to stay with Peter.  Meals were a disaster.  Upon our return, I did some research to see if there were any services available to help families in similar situations.  That’s when I stumbled across the Autism on the Seas website.  I read the testimonials and thought, “Hey, this might be a possibility if we ever do another cruise.”  I didn’t have long to wait!  In early 2017, my parents announced that they wanted to treat the extended family to another cruise during the holidays.  I explained AotS to them, and we booked our New Year’s Eve 5-night cruise through the AotS travel agency.  I crossed my fingers, hoping we had made the right decision.

What services do they offer?

Below is a summary of what AotS offers.  These services are available to ALL members of your party, whether or not they are special needs.  We were a party of 18 (extended family), and everyone could take advantage of AotS services if they chose to do so.
  • Priority boarding and disembarkation:  This is a HUGE deal.  There were 2000+ travelers on our ship.  Imagine the long lines to board (providing documentation, getting IDs made, securing payment information, etc.).  Peter would have had a meltdown for sure!  Instead, we found the orange shirts and balloons and were neatly escorted to the front of the line.  From the parking lot to the main deck of the ship took less than 30 minutes.  Amazing!  On the last day we were led directly off the ship to customs – again, no long lines.
  • Private Muster drill: If you have cruised before, you know what a headache this can be.  Multiply that stress by about 300 when you have a child with autism who is sensitive to noise and commotion.  AotS provided a PRIVATE muster drill for us, away from all the other passengers.
  • Qualified, experienced staff:  Our cruise had 2 Group Leaders and 6 Staff members. All AotS Staff are professional volunteers who have degrees relating to child development, behavior therapy, and/or special education.  Did you see that word: VOLUNTEERS??  These amazing people do NOT get paid for what they do!  Families pay a per-person service fee (only the families with the special needs children) to cover AotS services.  That’s it.  Families may tip the staff at the end of the cruise, and one would hope that everyone does that.  AotS staff deserve medals, not just tips!
  • One-on-one Services:  We opted to pay a little extra for a one-on-one therapist for Peter.  Our person, Nicole, was absolutely wonderful!  She spent nearly every moment with our family, helping at every meal and every event.  She stayed with Peter on the ship so the rest of us could enjoy a tour of Key West, FL.  She took care of him during respite sessions and accompanied us on excursions.  She got into the pool with him and kept him entertained.  Her help was invaluable!  Being able to leave the table at breakfast or lunch to go to the buffet might not sound like such a big deal, but it was to us!  Nicole would stay with Peter at the table while we got our food.  On the last morning, we arrived at the table to find that she had already gotten Peter’s breakfast all prepared for him, ready and waiting.  She had learned his likes and dislikes and that made all of us happy!
  • Daily respite sessions: Most mornings and afternoons, parents could take their children to the Respite Room and then have several hours of free time on their own!  We were secure in the knowledge that Peter was safe and happy – he had toys and games and super fun people to play with!
  • Private venue sessions: The AotS group reserved private sessions in the swimming pool, the rock climbing wall, and had reserved seating for all the shows. All of these included Staff assistance.  This allowed the families to participate without worrying about crowded areas or disturbing other passengers.  During the Rock Wall session, we left Peter in Respite while the teenagers and men in our family had a go on the wall!  We particularly loved the private family photo session with a ship photographer.  We were able to get some amazing photos of our extended family with minimal hassle!
  • Reserved seating at every meal and assistance at mealtime:  AotS had a reserved room in the Windjammer (buffet) and reserved tables at formal dinners.  Nicole sat by Peter even during formal dinners, taking care of his needs, so that we could enjoy adult conversation with our extended family.
  • Excursions: In Cozumel, the AotS group went to a private resort to enjoy the beautiful beach, swimming pool, and snorkeling.  Assistance at other excursions was available as well.
Hidden Services
While the above provides an official list of services (and you can see more on the website), it doesn’t include the most important services of all:
  • Peace of Mind: We had no qualms about leaving Peter in the care of the amazing AotS staff!  We were also secure in the knowledge that logistics for excursions and other events were handled with skill.
  • FreedomWe had many hours of “free time” during which we could enjoy the ship’s activities and the company of family without worrying about Peter.  We welcomed the New Year with cheers and a glass of champagne!
  • Amazing Memories: We will never forget Peter’s smile in the pool, or his joyous laughter on the water slide.  We will never forget the hugs and smiles he gave to Nicole and the other AotS staff members.  We will never forget Team Orange!
Thank You, Autism on the Seas!

This cruise was an amazing experience thanks to the Staff from Autism on the Seas!  Guys, we think you should change your name to Angels on the Seas, because that is the truth!  Where else would you find 9 people willing to spend their vacations taking care of special needs children on a volunteer basis?  The world needs more people like you guys.  Our family thanks all of you for the amazing work that you do to make the world a better place.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Cruise Review (In which we drove dune buggies in Cozumel and survived a family photo session)

After Christmas our entire family embarked on a five night Royal Caribbean Cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. Here's the lowdown on our adventure ...

The Cruise Workout

Mention the word cruise, and everyone immediately thinks endless buffets, decadent desserts, and mindless hours sunning by the pool. Ha! To be sure, there was food everywhere, but we were forever climbing stairs (no time to wait for elevators) and walking the entire length of the ship (elevators may go vertically, but they do NOT go horizontally). We worked out in the gym. We climbed the rock wall and played basketball. Heck, half the time I burned a gazillion calories just looking for someone -- ANYONE! -- from our group. My brand new FitBit Blaze was singing my praises.

Key West, Florida

Our first stop included a day in Key West, and after getting off the ship we decided to purchase tickets for a trolley tour and an overview of the city. Our tour guide told some really interesting stories, and after stopping for some obligatory photos (Ernest Hemingway's house, the Key West's southernmost tip, Sloppy Joe's Bar) the boys returned to the ship and Joe and I did a little more exploring on foot.

Also, Joe purchased the first souvenir of the trip -- a cigar, when he doesn't even smoke! But with the Penn State Fiesta Bowl the next day he was anticipating a celebratory smoke. Stay tuned ...

My Favorite Thing(s)

Mornings. I am an early riser, and I loved tip-toeing out of the cabin while the others were still sleeping, grabbing a cup of coffee, and finding a quiet place to watch the sun rise over the sea. I'd read, think, and grab another cup of coffee ... along with some yogurt and a delicious pastry. I think breakfast was another favorite thing.

Cozumel, Mexico

Our last day of 2017 was spent snorkeling in Mexico. The night before docking we decided, at the very last minute, to sign up for a shore excursion which included snorkeling, a dune buggy ride along the coast, and swimming at a secluded beach. Best decision ever. After meeting our group leader, we were assigned a bright, green dune buggy -- Joe drove, Nicholas rode shotgun, and Timothy and I had a blast in the back seat. We drove for while along the coast, stopped to snorkel, drove along the coast, stopped to swim, and drove back to the ship. Four hours of adventures. This was my favorite shore excursion ever.

And where was Jonathan? He decided to explore downtown Cozumel with Nonna and Nonno, who took him to a Tequila tasting and bought him a bottle of Tequila (see next entry). My parents are NOT boring.

When Your Sons are Young Men

As a mom, I'm still getting used to the idea of sons who are grown men. With one son living in Arkansas and the other away at college, I don't often get to see them do the things that young adults everywhere do. So, on the cruise I juggled feelings of pride, nostalgia, and amazement when Nonno bought the boys a beer or when I came across the two of them sitting at a Blackjack table :0

But before I thought about it too hard, Timothy would come tell me he entered a paper airplane contest or that he participated in a Mario Kart Super Smash Brothers video game tournament.

So it was all good.

Autism on the Seas

The main reason we chose to sail on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas was because they partnered with a wonderful organization called Autism on the Seas, which provides support, respite, one-on-one assistance, and organized activities for children and their families living with autism or other disabilities. As many of you know, my sister's youngest child has autism, and this organization was invaluable in helping her family enjoy a vacation without being overwhelmed with Peter's needs. Some of what they provided included:  an assigned therapist who remained with them for the entire length of the cruise; expedited boarding (no line waiting) and a private muster drill (far removed from the noise and confusion); two 2-hour blocks of respite daily where the family was free to go off on their own; and on Cozumel, special transportation to a private beach with amenities and activities for all.

Most of all, I was so impressed how the volunteers from Autism on the Seas (yes, I said volunteers) were so incredibly giving of their support, smiles, patience, and love.

Here's what I know: you can keep any of the world's leaders, presidents, kings, or authority figures. Put any one of those therapists in charge and the world would be a better place.

The Family Photo

Before we even left home, Nonna made the announcement that on the cruise we would have a family photo taken. Or else. Now, on our last vacation you cannot even begin to imagine what a production the family photo caused: teens complained, kids ran around, the men huffed and puffed, and the photographer was truly overwhelmed.

But we must honor our parents, and as much as we dreaded the very idea of another photo, once we boarded the ship we set a time and coordinated outfits (which was almost foiled by the youngest family member who inexplicably did NOT want to wear pants at the time of the photo, until he was bribed with a piece of gum and all the balloon animals he wanted).

Amazingly (and we didn't know this beforehand), Autism on the Seas provided private photo sessions (as opposed to waiting in line) and I will be forever grateful to their leader Sandy for whipping us all into position, hanging on to our purses and phones, holding the iPad so Peter could see it, and generally turning what is usually torture for all involved into something that was quick and painless.

And we even have the photos to prove it ... Our Family, The Entire Family, Nonna and Nonno with their Grandchildren

These Shoes are Made for Dancing

When we rang in the New Year, we were sailing on the Gulf of Mexico under an almost full moon. There were New Year's Eve parties in the Centrum area and on the pool deck, along with pre-parties and a Broadway show earlier in the evening. And I did all of it wearing my brand new evening dress with the mile-long slit (which I altered to a more modest 3/4-mile slit) and ... sneakers. Yes, you read that right. To be sure, I had a beautiful pair of shoes which coordinated nicely with my dress. I wore them for the photo session and then afterwards to dinner, but by 8 p.m. I knew there was no way I would last the night in those shoes.

And so I went back to the cabin and contemplated my choices: flip flops, hiking shoes (which I brought to tour Mayan ruins), grey Supergas, and a pair of white, converse-like sneakers. I went with the white sneakers and all of a sudden I could MOVE!  With my dress swishing around my ankles, I wore those sneakers to race down five flights and watch the ship's captain count down the minutes, I raced up eight flights of stairs to see the full moon just after midnight, I ran around looking for my people to wish them a Happy New Year! And you know what? People liked my shoes. One woman pointed to my shoes and gave me a thumbs up; another one declared me the smartest woman on the ship; and just before midnight someone tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to my shoes, and complimented me on being able to pair sneakers and an evening dress and actually pull it off! (Note: All the women who mentioned my shoes were carrying their shoes and walking around barefoot.)

Moral of the story? Cinderella didn't need those glass slippers.

Photo Potpourri

In which I look like a tour guide ...

When you are transformed into a superhero in the morning,
this is what you look like by dinnertime ...

Nonno fixing a balloon animal for the superhero in the above photo
(the same superhero who refused to wear pants for the family photo session)...

Can Nonna and Nonno party, or what?

About that cigar ... yes, Penn State won the Fiesta Bowl and, yes,
that's our youngest son doing the honors in lighting his dad's cigar ...

And that's all, folks!
Back to the reality of cold weather and school.

Friday, December 22, 2017

What I'm Doing: Addressing Holiday Modesty

Here is a sneak peek of the dress I purchased for New Year's Eve.

Can I just say how excited I am to be able to dress up? Especially since our plans on NYE usually include gathering around a fire pit to toast in the New Year, or lounging in our pj's while we watch a movie, or doing absolutely nothing and going to bed early.

But this year we will celebrate with champagne and party hats while sailing the western Caribbean en route to Mexico.

As you can imagine, I was excited when I found this dress. It drapes beautifully, it's the perfect length, and it's very flattering (provided I don't gain so much as one single pound over Christmas). But there is one teensy, weensy problem: the dress has a Kardashian-like side slit a mile long and I am not a Kardashian. I need to be able to walk, sit, and move without worrying about flashing anyone. #modestyisalive

I mean, I want to live it up this New Year's Eve, but I don't want to live it up that much.

So, today I am dusting off the sewing basket and rummaging for needle and thread to reduce a mile-long slit to 3/4 of a mile.

Or somewhere thereabouts.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Boy Elf, Girl Elf: How to tell the difference

This year Santa has officially  morphed into Mom, Dad, and the Christmas Spirit. We kept it going for as long as we could, but little boys grow up. Darn it. I miss the innocence of those times, such as when the boys claimed, all wide eyed and breathless with excitement, that they saw a red glow out their window which must have been Rudolph (it was actually the car taillight of the guy delivering the Augusta Chronicle). And then there was this conversation, a classic in our family ...

"Mom," asks our little guy. "How do you know if an elf is a boy or a girl?"

I stop what I'm doing. How do I answer this? There are a lot of different directions I can go, but which one? I'm thinking fast, but apparently not fast enough.

"I know!" he says. "You have to look under his ..."

STOP. Allow me to interrupt for a moment. Can I just tell you I was a tad apprehensive about what he was going to say? I mean, where do YOU think the conversation was headed? How would YOU tell the difference between a boy elf and a girl elf? But here, let's resume ...

"You have to look under his HAT!" he says triumphantly. "A lot of girls hide their ponytails under their hat, so if you see a ponytail then it's a girl elf!"

And now you know, too. Call it Christmas enlightenment.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Year of No Tortellini

Many of you know that, from the beginning of time, our family has had the tradition of gathering in my parents' kitchen one week before Christmas to make homemade tortellini.

We make a lot -- 500-700 (one year we made 792!) -- and each one is filled and folded by hand.

It's a labor of love because all us who are here (the five of us and my parents) make the tortellini for all family members that live out of town who, basically, arrive Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to eat. We like to give them a hard time about it; from the moment we sit down to eat we talk about all the work, work, work we did to make those 700 tortellini, and how we had to give up an entire Saturday for the task, and how even the guys just home from college sacrificed for the greater good of the family. We shamelessly pile on the guilt.

Except, I don't think they feel guilty. They're too busy eating.

Anyway. This year, for the first time since the beginning of time, we are breaking with tradition. There will be no homemade tortellini. Not one. We will not gather in Nonna's kitchen. We will not listen to opera. Additionally, we're not even celebrating Christmas with anyone and we are not  exchanging gifts.

No tortellini! No opera! No ribbons and bags and bows!

Instead ...

all 18 of us are meeting in Tampa, FL two days after Christmas to sail away on a western Caribbean cruise.

I don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but I think we'll survive a Christmas with no homemade tortellini ;-)

P.S. In case you're interested ... links to our tortellini tradition through the years:

We start tortellini training early!