Wednesday, December 3, 2014

An Introduction

It's taken me almost two weeks to blog about her, but believe me when I say that's not for lack of her occupying my thoughts almost constantly since the first time I laid my eyes on her gorgeous little face. Prepare to fall in love.

Oakleigh Paige
born November 21st 
7 pounds 5 ounces
100% precious

Oakleigh has made me an aunt for the thirteenth time; she has expanded the size of my heart once again and nestled her way right in among all of the nieces and nephews born before her.  She is soft, and beautiful, and tiny, and just simply perfection in human form.  I could take in her sweet baby smell and stare at her for hours, holding her close and smothering her head with tiny kisses endlessly. As much as I would love nothing more than to make this a reality, I would never be given the opportunity. She is like a drug and all of her family that surround her are like junkies, jockeying for position to get their next hit.  There is literally not enough of her to go around, and the time you have with her is always too short.  She is simply addicting in the most incredible way.

What is it about babies that turns me into some kind of irrational, obsessed being that is capable of nothing but focusing on their sweetness, making want to have a dozen more of my own? Snuggling little Oak-a-leigh (three syllable name at minimum, according to Star's pronunciation) at Thanksgiving, I went so far as to try to convince The General that we should have one more baby.  I mean, that is a absolutely crazy idea. We say all the time how much easier life is now that the girls are older.  Our girls are self-sufficient and basically take care of themselves at this point.  We can get in the car and go on a moment's notice with little thought or planning.  Why in the world would we dive into the world of diapers and bottles and sleepless nights and teething and nap schedules and toddler tantrums and general insanity again?  Because the magic of Oakleigh is strong, and she convinces me with her little baby sighs that newborns are the most delicious, irresistible creatures ever to inhabit this Earth.  She is intoxicating, and in her presence I am deliriously drunk with her very being to the point where I'm willing to make very questionable decisions.  I'm fairly certain that The General feels I can not be trusted with this baby as her powers consume me.  He is probably right.  I can not be held responsible for my thoughts or actions when holding this little girl.

Oakleigh Paige, our life is already so much fuller with you in it.  As with your brother and cousins, it will be an honor and privilege to be a part of your life from the very beginning and I can not wait to watch you grow into what will no doubt be an incredible human being.  Welcome to the world and thank you for joining our family, little love bug.  We are so happy that you are here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Yesterday we said goodbye to an individual that meant a great deal to me. Tommy was an inspiration and guiding force in my life, and although there is comfort in knowing that he is now free of the pain and limitations he faced during his lifetime here with us my heart is still heavy with his loss. His mom, Rita, asked me to speak at his funeral yesterday. It was not easy, but I was humbled and honored that she trusted me to speak about her son and the impact he made on my life and the lives of everyone who knew him. My only hope is that in the words I shared I honored him and his life as he deserved.


Tommy Harner was my very first friend.  Born only two and a half months after me, I don’t remember life without him.  As toddlers we were carted to our grandparents’ houses, propped up on couches in ridiculous Halloween costumes while our parents took our picture together.  When our moms and dads got together to play cards on Saturday nights, Tommy was my playmate.  It was a thrill to listen to him say my name (and also a little annoying when he said my brother’s name so much more clearly and frequently), and it was always fun to get him to try to repeat things I said to him.  In typical kid fashion, I was a little jealous of Tommy’s cool toys - especially his Teddy Ruxpin - anytime we went to his or his grandparents’ house.  During the summer, on nights when our families would get together at Gordon and Cindy’s, the adults would hang out in the yard or by the barn while I pushed Tommy in his chair down the lane and my brother pushed Nicole in her stroller.  As we entered the school aged years life got busy and it became more difficult for our families to find time to spend together, but that didn’t stop our friendship from growing.  We waved to him like crazy people from the curb like he was a local celebrity as he passed by us in the Harvest Days parade.  In high school there were nights when he stopped by the Dairy Queen for a milkshake and a quick visit while I was there working.  He was at my high school graduation party, and I returned the favor a couple of years later.  A few years after that, like all the other 24 year olds in attendance, Tommy showed up fashionably late to my wedding reception to join in the celebration.

All of this goes to illustrate that there is not a time in my life that Tommy wasn’t a part of.  His physical presence provided many fond moments, but his friendship gave me so much more than memories.  Tommy’s life shaped my own life in ways that I’m still just now fully coming to understand.  Tommy faced many challenges and limitations in his lifetime, but that never stopped him from changing my life and the life of so many others that were lucky enough to know and love him.

As a kid, I don’t ever remember thinking that Tommy was different.  Sure, he didn’t walk and he couldn’t see like I could.  We went to different schools and he had medical needs that as a kid I couldn’t begin to comprehend.  But honestly, other than that I don’t think I ever saw him as being disabled.  What I saw instead was how capable he was - capable of being silly just like me.  Capable of laughing just like me.  Capable of making his parents a little bit crazy just like me when all they wanted was to spend some grownup time with their friends.  He was capable of playing and loving and finding joy in the simple things just like me.  We did things differently but we were more alike than not.  And just like that, Tommy taught me the first of many important lessons.  He taught me about acceptance.  He showed me that when the focus shifted to what made us similar, all the things that made us different were so much less important than what made us the same.  How lucky was I to have such an important lesson taught so early in life by such a patient teacher?

I don’t remember the moment, but I’ve heard the story told several times.  My mom and I were driving through Dwight one day and on the drive we passed Fox Center.  From the back seat I told my mom, “That’s where Tommy goes to school, and someday I’m going to teach him how to walk”.  Now, at five years old I’m not sure what made me so bold as to think I could teach someone how to walk but there it was.  In his own way, Tommy had provided me with a mission, and wouldn’t you know it but somehow that challenge stuck with me.  He had planted a seed that would take root, grow over time, and blossom into a life path for me that lead to working with children with special needs.  My friendship with Tommy instilled in me a sense of compassion and a desire to help those who couldn’t do for themselves.  My life experiences with Tommy encourage me daily to continue to tackle that mission he set in front of me so many years ago, to work harder and be better in order to a make difference in the lives of kids like him.

I’ve spent some time over the past few days reading messages from others about Tommy, and in every note it’s obvious how much he was adored.  How could you not love Tommy Harner?! He made us laugh.  He changed our lives.  He was an inspiration.  He was a true joy.  It was an honor to know him.  These words are shared over and over again by friends and family who loved him deeply.  Tommy won the hearts of all who knew him and was definitely one of a kind.  My wish is that in some way Tommy felt the impact he had, that he knew the work he did during his 36 years on this Earth touched the lives of more people than he could ever begin to imagine.  

When Rita asked me to speak today, I have to admit that I was a little overwhelmed with the request.  I kept asking myself, “How do I do justice to a person who has had such a profound, lasting impact on my life”?  Rita’s request was simple - to honor Tommy and his life -  but as I thought about what I wanted to share I realized that no matter what I said about Tommy I would not do him justice unless I also honored the people in his life who gave to him as much as he has given to all of us.  Never in my life have I been witness to a more powerful display of devotion than that of the love and care Tommy received from his parents and grandparents.  Tom and Rita, the sacrifices that you have made for your son are beyond anything I can begin to imagine.  I know and have felt first hand that the depths of a parent’s love for their child run deeper than anything anyone can begin to imagine, but when I look at the life that you gave to Tommy I am reminded time and time again that that love is endless and all consuming.  Your dedication to Tommy has always been and will continue to be one of the great sources of inspiration that I have ever experienced, and I am certain that anyone who has ever come into your lives would agree.  On those days as a mom when I feel that my well has run dry and I have nothing left to give to my daughters, I think of you and know that there is always more.  Tommy was loved and cherished and accepted by all who knew him because that’s what we saw in his relationship with you.  I can only pretend to imagine the grief and emptiness that you feel with his loss, but I believe with all my heart that Tommy would want me to be his voice in order to share this with you:

You have lost your son, but your work here is not done.  Tommy’s work here is not done.  He is counting on us - on ALL of us - to continue to lead by his example to teach and inspire others while he guides and watches over us from above.  He’s counting on us to continue his life work by teaching compassion and acceptance, friendship and love, devotion and dedication to all people in all places every single day.  We have all come together in this space to honor Tommy, but honoring him should not end when we leave here today.  We must continue to honor him every day because that’s what he deserves, and we do that by living as he did.  

We will smile and laugh because that’s what he loved to do.  We will accept and celebrate each other’s differences because that’s what he taught us.  We will show compassion for others because that’s what we saw in him.  We will devote our lives to making the lives of those we love better every single day.  We will dedicate the rest of our lives to making Tommy’s life on this Earth meaningful by taking what he gave to each of us and passing it along to another.  

Tommy is now free of the limitations and pain that he experienced in his life here with us.  Now it’s our turn to carry his burden, to continue his life’s work in his honor.  I will gladly do this for my friend.  It’s the least I could do for someone who did so much for me.     

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The House of Preteens, Vol. 1

It is official.  We are now a house of two pre-teen girls.  Here were the most recent signs that this transition from a house of princess and make believe to hormones and rock and roll has been made complete:
  • Elaina's current favorite songs:  Talk Dirty to Me and Fancy (not the Poison or Reba versions).  I've become increasingly more proficient in censoring lyrics and the mute button on my steering wheel is getting a serious workout.
  • McKenna and I did a "Mom and Me" day for her birthday this year.  Two hours into our day, while waiting in line at Claire's, I looked over and suddenly realized she was wearing eye shadow.  My comfy clothes wearing girl had surprised me by walking out of her room with several accessories - necklace, watch, earrings, and a bracelet - by the use of makeup floored me.  Most surprising to me was how well executed the application was completed.
  • Elaina's shower routine from start to finish involves at least twice the number of products I have ever used in my lifetime. 
  • McKenna has a specific brand and style of bra that she prefers above others, and of course they come from Justice.  
  • Just five minutes ago there was a serious sister blow-up.  Elaina furiously stormed out her room - the sounds of Shakira blaring in the background and various makeup containers littering the floor - because she asked McKenna to give her a "smokey eye" and had done a terrible job.  Meanwhile, McKenna chased after her sister with perfectly applied red lipstick while I explained that the smokey eye was a tricky thing to master and that under no circumstances should eye shadow EVER be applied onto eyebrows.
In summary, The General and I would appreciate prayers of support and strength as we enter into and navigate our way through this difficult time.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Happy Birthday, McKenna!

July 14, 2014

Dear McKenna,

If I was asked to pick a decade of my life in which I have experienced the most personal transformation, there is no doubt that this past decade with you would be the one I chose.  Looking back at pictures of you over the past ten years obviously reveals how much you have changed, from a sleepy newborn with a head full of black hair to a stunningly sweet ten year old - still with enviable locks - with a heart of gold.  I've changed too, and most of that is a direct result of you.  You made me a mother.  You were the one that made me realize the depths of love have no limit, that they only continue to swell and expand with each new day and every new experience shared.  You were the one to make me appreciate the sacrifices my own parents made for me in a way that I never before understood.  You were the one to reminded me that life's simplest moments are some of the most important and that at the end of the day I am happiest when surrounded by the little family that your dad and I have created together.  You, my sweet girl, have in so many ways taught me more in the last ten years than I could have hope to teach you. 


I look at you now and am often shocked at what I see.  I can still see flashes of the little baby that I rocked to sleep every night.  There are moments when you turn and I'm reminded of you as a toddler playing at the park.  Those moments are becoming fewer and farther in between though, replaced now with the face of a young lady.  The wisdom of experience.  The laugh of understanding at subtleties once misunderstood, of jokes now told instead of just heard.  I am stunned when I stop to dwell on the fact that you are going into fifth grade.  My God, fifth grade?!  I cried watching you walk into the Intermediate School on the first day of school last year.  I don't know where it came from.  I was ready for emotion when I dropped you off on your first day of kindergarten, but tears on the first day of fourth grade was unexpected.  I think I was just suddenly overcome, watching you confidently and independently walking away from my car into a new building, that the times when you need me by your side are slowly fading.  This is what I want for you, but man does it still sting.

Still, even though you don't need me at your side, I know that for know you still want me there.  You are ten years old but still snuggle up next to me or your Dad at every opportunity.  You slide in next to me for hugs multiple times a day, in private or in public.  You reach for my hand as a way to stay connected more than for safety.  You look to me to make sure that I'm watching and give a little smile when we make eye contact.  I know you probably don't think this is the case, but you should know that I am always watching for you and over you.  I'm always turning to find you in the crowd, to see what you are doing and to know that you are okay.  My eyes will always be searching for you where we are in life.  You are not afraid to show or seek affection, and I love that you are still so open with your love.  Your heart is the biggest of anyone I've ever known.  For has hard as you love, it is impossible for anyone not to love you right back.  

In this past year, I've seen a part of you open up that I haven't seen before.  I don't know if it's age or opportunity, but you have taken on challenges this year with the perfect balance of nerves and confidence.  You've done another year of cheer leading, tried out for the school play, taken on solo performances at your music concert, ran for and won a spot as a student council representative, signed up for band, and performed at your school's talent show.  I can tell you how proud of you I am in all of those instances and so many more, but I don't have the words to convey the intensity of my pride in those moments.  As you and Elaina are getting older I think you're becoming more and more aware of how I tend to be a crier - in those moments when the tears are falling you should know that the tears are coming from a well deep within my heart and carry with them an overwhelming sense of love and joy at your bravery and talent.  One of my many hopes for you is that someday you become a mother and experience something similar with your own child; I think it's only then that you will have a complete appreciation for what I feel for you.


You look just like your dad (although there is some debate in this statement), but oh are you your Mother's Daughter.  I'm not going to claim that I know you better than you know yourself, but it's sort of true at least for now.  I know when you're overwhelmed and I know when you're hurt and I know when you're stressed because your reactions in those types of situations?  They are exactly like mine.  We've had many conversations about this; your dad and Gramma have confirmed it as true.  I know that often what appears to be the trigger to an emotional collapse is often just a decoy for something much deeper.  I know that you are a peace keeper and will go to great lengths to keep others happy, often at the expense of your own happiness.  I know that when your heart is hurting you want little more than to just be held, to be comforted in the arms of you mom or your dad, to be told over and over again to breathe and that things are going to be okay.  I understand you because I've been there.  No girl your age wants to hear "you're just like your mother," but I hate to be the one to break it to you.  In so many, many ways it's true.

Just a couple of days ago you and I had a heart-to-heart about the very serious topic of learning how to do a cartwheel.  You have been working on that task on and off for years and for whatever reason just couldn't master the task.  In that very honest conversation I think I boiled it down to two main elements, and you were pretty quick to agree with me.  First, I don't think you were giving it your very best effort. I'm not going to call you lazy, but you certainly have a knack for doing just what you need to do to get a job done.  You asked me why Elaina learned to do a cartwheel so easily but yet you couldn't.  When I honestly answered that she worked a lot harder at it until she got it perfect you did not disagree.  The second element is one that I think played an even bigger part, and it didn't really dawn on me until after our second trip to Great America last month.  I said to you, "I think that sometimes it's hard for you to do things because you're kind of scared".  Again, even though you are coming into an age where you like to argue any point I make with increasing (and infuriating) frequency, you absorbed this comment and agreed.

If I was given the opportunity to make a wish for you each year as you blow out your candles, my wish this year is that you learn to live without fear.  Okay, maybe that's a little drastic.  A little bit of fear isn't a bad thing so let me revise.  My wish for you is that you never let fear stop you from achieving something wonderful.  We talked that day about how it's okay to be scared or nervous but how often in life we have to ask ourselves, "Which is stronger - my fear or my desire to experience this?".  I explained to you, in terms of the cartwheel in this instance, that being afraid of falling or getting hurt might be the one thing actually holding you back from accomplishing that goal.  I tried to get you to understand that although fear can keep us safe, it can always limit our experiences.  I know this because I let fear rule me more than I should.  Right now Papa is flying to Costa Rica on a mission trip for ten days.  He asked me to go and although logistics and finances certainly played a part in my decision, I will fully admit that fear is what ultimately made me (rather quickly) say no.  I can play the "what if" game with the best of them - what if I get seriously hurt there?  What if one of the girls is hurt and I can't get home to them?  What if they miss me?  What if I don't like the food?  What if there's no safe drinking water?  What if I can't do the physical labor that's required on this type of trip?  What if I'm asked to minister to groups people who don't speak English? In the end, although these questions are legitimate, fear of the unfamiliar and unknown has kept me from an experience that could likely change my life forever in some of the most amazing ways.  Sure other opportunities will present themselves, but will I let the fear win out again?  It's my hope for you - whether it's pushing your nerves aside to ride Raging Bull with your dad or trying out for a team or organization that you want to be a part of or going away to a college that you love or (gulp) moving thousands of miles away to pursue a dream - that you will learn when to let the fear speak to you and when to tell it to shut up.  There's a balance to everything in life, and part of that balance sometimes means taking a deep breath, holding on tight, and enjoying every crazy fast twist and turn toward adventure.  Sure it's scary but most of the time at the end?  You can't wait to do it again.

Oh, and how insanely awesome was it when the very next day you landed perfectly executed cartwheels like it was your job? 

McKenna Grace, you are simply one of the most loving creatures that has ever walked into my life.  Your laugh is contagious, your spirit is pure light.  Your kindness is authentic and effortless, your love unselfish and abundant.   I never get tired of getting compliments about you, but I don't need to hear them to know them to be true.  You are an angel on this Earth and you radiate nothing but goodness.  Being your mom is simply one of the greatest joys and blessings one could ever ask for.  You have always been and will always be everything I have ever dreamed of as a daughter.  Thank you for being so patient with me over the last ten years.  I can't wait to see what you will teach me in this next decade together. 

Happy birthday, my love.


Monday, June 30, 2014

A Public Speaker Is Born

On Saturday afternoon, the four of us traveled to the booming metropolis of Odell for my mom's side annual family reunion.  My grandpa was one of ten children, and this reunion is an attempt for gathering all the remaining ancestors of my great-grandparents, John and Algoga, in one place for sharing memories and catching up.  I can remember the reunions from when I was my girls' ages - they were always held in Chautauqua Park on the hottest day of the summer.  My parents never let us go to the awesome pool and instead I had to settle for summer fun in the form of water balloon tosses.  Eventually the crowd began to diminish and the parks were moved to Odell's park (still, no swimming allowed for my brother and me, but at college age I could cope with this tragedy slightly better).  Someone finally got some sense and as the crowds thinned even more we moved to an indoor (air conditioned) location in town.

Conflicts in scheduling have prevented us from attending the past few years, but with an open calendar and the knowledge that these are family members we see maybe once a year at the most, we packed up our dishes to pass and headed south.  It was a quiet ride, and as we were pulling off of the interstate Elaina announced from the back of the Traverse, "I wrote a speech.  I'm going to read it at the reunion".  Now, anyone that has followed this blog long enough probably understands why I immediately experienced a moment of panic.  Elaina giving a speech?  In front of a group of people, almost entirely made up of people that she has never met?  I anticipated that this could not end well.  We coaxed her into practicing her speech in the car (mostly so I could censor what she had planned), and I was instantly embarrassed at my fears and doubts.  In a 40 minute car ride, my eight year old wrote something that perfectly captured the point of the day and she brought me to tears.  Here is what she wrote, written exactly as she did in her composition book:

Hi I am Elaina P*****, the daughter of Davied and Amanda P***** and I have something to say

note to self next page ------------->

Today is a day all family in the bolen fammily come here to scelibrate our family.  When I call your name please stand-up.  Kim, Pam, Marsha, Dale, Amanda, Daveid, McKenna, Ty, Tammy, Margy, Phil, and Erik, cari, ella, and cayden.  if I didn't call your name still stand.  Everybody please make a toast.  We are a family we will never not be a family we wil be together forever adn ever and I know I am very little to do this but I couldn't help it I love my family so I had to do this!  Fammilly can never not be a family.  No matter how hard we all try It will never ever work.  We will allways be there for each otehr.  Like when we are sad, upset, hurt, sick, lonely, silly, frusterated, mad, and entertaining.  family is everything to everybody without family you wouldn't even be here today so remember never say your not even going to be part of my family any more.  Thank you

There's a little bit of, shall we say conflict, between a few of the members of the family so Elaina's points seemed especially poignant.  I think my dad said it best:  it's pretty remarkable at her age that Elaina was able to nail exactly what the reunion should be about. 

Anyway, I was pretty floored by her spontaneous act and crazy proud of her courage for standing up in front of everyone to deliver her message.  As always, she never ceases to surprise me in the most amazing ways.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sign On The Dotted Line

I have three general goals for this summer when it comes to the girls:
  1. Get them away from dependence and near addiction to electronics,
  2. Make sure they are more physically active including ample time spent outdoors, and
  3. Give them more chores around the house
Sure, some of these goals are selfish.  I'd love to pawn off some of the household cleaning duties on them, and getting them outside more often means giving me some quiet time inside.  Not wanting to appear like an evil witch, though, we instead packaged this with a "it's our job as your parents to teach you about responsibility so that you can be a productive adult" speech. I explained to the girls that I, with their dad's help, would be drawing up a contract that would specifically state expectations for ultimate productivity and compliance.  I was also sure to explain to them that full negotiation would be allowed and encouraged to make sure they felt like they had a say in the matter.  After all, good labor relations lead to more hospitable working environment.

The contract was waiting for their review on the dining room table this morning, and without one word from me rooms were clean immediately.  I reviewed the document with the girls; the legal jargon had the girls a little perplexed (I'm only a little embarrassed at the joy writing it brought me last night) so I wanted to make sure they understood all the terms.  Negotiations took place this afternoon when The General got home from work, and his union heart was a little broken when both girls agreed to all terms as written without hesitation or question.  I like to think that I'm just that fair of a contract writer.  Below is the exact agreement (minus our last name for privacy purposes) that we all signed and is now posted on the refrigerator.  I feel like this might be one of my greatest parenting achievements to date.


We, the daughters of The General and The Mrs., have read and discussed the following terms for responsibility and personal growth during the 2014 summer break as outlined below:

1.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree to have our rooms clean each day before 10 a.m.  For clarification, "clean" means the following:  bed is made, all dirty clothes are put in the hamper, clean clothes are placed in drawers and/or closet, all garbage is put in a garbage can, and all toys and books are put in their proper location.

2.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree that there will be no screen time between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. unless given special permission by our parents.  This includes the following:  television, Wii, movies, Netflix, iPods, computers, and iPads.  Exceptions will be made ONLY for listening to music on iPods.

3.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree to read at least 20 minutes each day. 

4.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree to spend at least one hour (60 minutes) of recreation time outside each day, weather permitting.  Activities include but are not limited to:  bike riding, jump roping, water activities, walking, bubble blowing, kite flying, swinging, outdoor games, and any other leisure activity.

5.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree to assume responsibility for the drying of dishes following afternoon and evening meals on a rotation basis.

6.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree to take on additional chores and duties in an effort to assist our parents with the tasks of upkeep and beautification of our home and property. This may include, but is not limited to, dusting, sorting laundry, folding laundry, putting away clothes, vacuuming, taking out the garbage, watering flowers, garden upkeep, lawn care, or any other task as assigned.

7.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree to have all personal belongings put in their proper locations at the end of each day prior to going to bed each night.  Special attention will be paid to the living room and outdoor areas.

8.  We, McKenna G. and Elaina R. P*****, agree to attempt to live in the moment and refrain from asking :  "What are we doing tomorrow?" more than once a day.

We, the daughters of The General and The Mrs., understand that violation of any of the above conditions will result in penalty as determined by our parents.  Penalties may include loss of an X, loss of  privileges, added chores, or other consequence not specifically named here.  We also understand that adherence to these conditions will likely result in happier moods, increased sense of personal satisfaction, and/or additional rewards or privileges. 

By signing below, we agree to the above terms and conditions as they have been read and explained to us.  We understand these terms will begin Monday, June 9th, 2014 and will terminate on the final evening of summer on Thursday, August 14th, 2014.  We understand this document will be posted for quick and easy reference throughout the term of this contract and our parents, The General and The Mrs., are willing to discuss this contract at any time for clarification of terms and conditions.

McKenna G. P*****, daughter

Elaina R. P*****, daughter

The General, father

The Mrs., mother                                 

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Yesterday we were driving to Kankakee to meet the newest member of The General's family, a little blue eyed baby girl that would change all of our lives forever.  I was 18, just a couple of days removed from my high school graduation.

Yesterday she was learning to walk, starting to talk, smiling with the light of a thousand suns.  I was at the University of Illinois in my first year of college and from that distance soaked up every picture that arrived in my mailbox and took advantage of every opportunity on trips home to love on this little ray of sunshine.

Yesterday she was celebrating her first birthday.  The General and I spent what seemed like hours at Toys R Us searching for the perfect gift.  I had just finished my first year of college and was happy to be home where I could spoil her even more frequently.

Yesterday she was welcoming home a baby brother, making sure that even though there was a new kid in town the spotlight would never stray from her for long.  Standing in front of the crowd that always gathered with eagerness and joy, we watched her sing from her makeshift stage and marveled at the little girl she was becoming.  I was home on Christmas break and couldn't get over how much she had grown up.

Yesterday she donned her school uniform and set out for kindergarten.  Standing in my grad school apartment, looking at her first day of school picture, almost took my breath away.  How can she be old enough to be starting school?  It's impossible.

Yesterday she came to the bridal store to pick out her dress for her role as flower girl in our wedding. We had several picked out, and she tried them on without argument or protest.  Standing with her in that little room, she looked to me and asked, "Which one looks the most like yours?".  I pointed then listened as she immediately said, "That's the dress I want".  My heart melted again for this little girl that I loved so much.

Yesterday I went to watch her swim in a meet in her inaugural year of swim team.  I was hugely pregnant, totally uncomfortable sitting on the concrete pool deck in the heat of summer, and scared to death that I was going to have to jump into the pool to save my niece, the little engine that could that flailed through the water trying with all her might to make it from one end of the pool to the other.  Yesterday she wore glasses.  Yesterday she had her first communion.  Yesterday she was confirmed.  Yesterday she wore braces.  Yesterday she was small enough to snuggle into my lap.

Yesterday she seemed instantly huge as she held her new cousin, my first daughter.  Yesterday she took my daughter's hand and kept her safe as they played outside at Big Papa's house.  Yesterday both of my daughters looked to their oldest cousin with love and admiration, and I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer that my girls would learn from their cousin's lead.  That they would become the kind, smart, compassionate, helpful, loving, generous, responsible, faithful, patient girl that they looked up to so much.

Yesterday we were sitting in Dan & Julie's living room, watching and listening as Amanda talked about her fears as her oldest child was about to embark on her first year of high school.  It will be some of the greatest years of your life, we told Rachel.  Stop worrying - she'll be fine, we told Amanda.  I looked to my own daughters and thought, "Man, I'm so glad my girls are still little.  High school seems so far away!".  I didn't know then how wrong I was.

Yesterday I walked into a high school natatorium to watch Rachel in her senior night swim meet.  Armed with my camera and flowers, I was not ready for the emotion that hit me the moment she walked across that pool deck with her parents on either side.  I looked to my right and saw her senior night poster - a current picture and a smaller picture of her first year as a participant on the swim team  and I basically lost it.  "She can not be this old," was all I could think.  "That little girl in that picture in the corner?  That was just yesterday!"

And now there's today.

Today she is the age now that I was the day she was born  Today the little baby that stole the hearts of us all is graduating from high school. She will walk across that stage as class Valedictorian, her future as bright as the light that shines from behind those brilliant blue eyes.  She carries herself with poise in every challenge she accepts; she exudes a maturity beyond comprehension for a young woman yet to conquer the world.  She is still the model that I hope my daughters hold close to their hearts for what can be accomplished through hard work, dedication, faith, kindness, and loyalty.

I will likely embarrass myself this afternoon as she accepts her diploma.  I'm a mess right now just anticipating it.  I hope you know, Rachel, that my tears are not of sadness but of pride for the incredible woman that you have become.  My heart is bursting with joy at all you have accomplished already and soaring at the certainty of how much farther you will go.  I've said it before, but it bears to be repeated:  it is an honor and privilege to be your aunt and I'm so grateful for all the moments that you have allowed me to share with you along the way.

To you, on your graduation day, I offer you the most heartfelt congratulations and best wishes on this next life adventure.  We love you so very much.


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