Somehow Familiar

Last week we returned from a beautiful place in the Pacific Ocean where our neighbors now live. Hawaii has been on my to-see list since childhood, probably because my favorite sitcom families traveled there. George and Weezy Jefferson (and their neighbors Tom and Helen), the Mama’s Family bunch, and even Saved by the Bell had memorable Hawaiian vacations.


Aloha, McDonald’s

It’s a wonderful and strange place, the fiftieth state. Since it’s part of the US it feels familiar, but its remote location and tropical setting and strong native culture give it a foreign, glamorous quality. While there we visited Target and McDonald’s, which are pretty similar to those places in Illinois, except for the Spam items on McDonald’s menu—right next to the common Hotcakes & Sausage. The unfamiliar alongside the familiar.

Our hotel’s logo was a single arch—almost the shape of the St. Louis Arch—but with a peak at the top like a gothic window. Whenever I caught a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye, my brain would say, “What? A St. Louis Arch?” The mind works unbidden to find the familiar in the unfamiliar.


Aloha evil twin

Charlie’s Evil Twin

While we were away, my sister Amanda looked after Charlie-Cat. We knew he was well cared for but missed him still. When we spotted a cat that looked just like our Charlie at a restaurant, I bent down to meet him. He sneered at me, a common tourist. We named the kitty Charlie’s Evil Twin, alluring yet aloof, unsettling in his familiarity and unfamiliarity.

Of course, the highlight of the trip was hanging out with our old neighbors who now call Hawaii home. Meeting up with Kim and Brandon and the girls at a restaurant near the hotel felt as normal as hanging out in the front yard back in Illinois. We also got to see former neighbors Nick and Paula and their girls. (Why must our much-loved neighbors move to Hawaii?) It felt like old times, like chatting in the driveway, but on the beach in paradise on Memorial Day. It was a neighborhood reunion in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Familiar folks in an unfamiliar place: in a word, it was lovely.

Aloha noodle factor

BFFs at Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory

Toward the end of the trip, we stayed at Kim and Brandon’s house, Caroline playing with their girls and all of us enjoying their sweet hospitality. Caroline is a few years older than the girls—a sort of honorary big sister to them. And while we are not family, Kim and Brandon treated us as if we were, the familiar (literally) in the unfamiliar.

Part of traveling is finding ways to feel at home away from home—finding the familiar in the unfamiliar. And the dearest friends are the ones who’ve become somehow familiar—strangely familiar—like family.

Aloha group photo

Dear Neighbors, Sweet Friends, Like Family


A Blanket Named Lello

Friday night. Caroline left Lello on her unmade bed.

Tonight she’s going to her first sleepover – the birthday party of a friend that she’s known since Kindergarten. She’s been super-excited since she got the invitation. This morning before school, she carefully packed her overnight bag, asking if we had any travel-size toothpaste that’s “not gross.” I found some not-gross toothpaste for her.

She also packed PJs, a diary, a photo of her friend Vivien, a hairbrush, and an emoji-print sleeping bag. The essentials. I made a mental note to have her pack a pillow before we leave the house this evening. When I glanced at her bed – that’s when I noticed Lello.

Lello was a baby shower gift before Caroline was born, a soft, fleece blanket. I can’t remember which sweet friend gave us the gift of Lello, but her name is listed somewhere in Caroline’s baby book. It’s probably described as “cute fuzzy animal blanket” because that’s what I would have called it before it was named Lello Blanket.

The blanket’s white background is scattered with zoo animals – elephants, lions, giraffes – but the animal that Caroline loved the most is a yellow tiger. By the time she began to talk, she would point at the tiger and try to say “yellow,” which sounded more like “leyo,” which eventually became a real, proper blanket name: Lello.

Lello Blanket has been on every overnight trip she’s taken, from Disney World to Tiki’s house, always packed on top for on-demand comfort at a moment’s notice. The white part is more a dingy, pale gray from being washed in a load of jeans years ago. The animals are faded, and the tag is frayed. Lello looks exactly like what it is: a well-loved blanket.

This could be Lello’s first night alone. I’m feeling sorry for Lello.


My Facebook feed lately has been filled with graduation photos – friends’ kids who’ll be off to college in August or even sooner. The ones that tug at my tear ducts are the side-by-side pics of the same kid in kindergarten and a cap and gown. It happens in a blink, the growing up.

Caroline is nine, more than halfway to high school graduation. Makes me want to keep her home from all sleepovers and miscellaneous fun activities. Also makes me wonder: will Lello make the cut as dorm-room bedding? Or will it fade to obsolescence long before that?

I don’t know how Lello will fare in the future. Maybe I’m projecting my own fears of obsolescence onto Lello Blanket?

Nah . . .


Tuesday morning. Caroline reminded me to pack Lello Blanket in the suitcase for vacation. Maybe there’s still a future for Lello after all.  ; )

lello yellow blanket

Lello, a well-loved blanket


Earlier this week I drove home from an errand without my seat belt. I’m big on safety — seat belts, booster seats for kids, not texting behind the wheel, or whatever the standard may be. Whether I’m driving or along for the ride, I always put on a seat belt.

Strangely, my car didn’t remind me that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt until I was just a few blocks from the driveway. The beeping startled me, then the disembodied voice said, “Please secure your safety belt.” I was like, “Now you tell me?” Apparently it’s not just me becoming forgetful.

I guess I can’t say I always wear a seat belt. In fact, this is the second time in recent weeks that I’ve forgotten to “make it click.” The first time I was riding along on a quick drive to Taco Bell. There’s no apparent pattern to this—except that it’s spring.

Springtime is my forgetful season. When Caroline was in pre-school, every single April or May I’d forget to pay tuition. In fact, right now I’m wondering if there’s something important I forgot.

My desk is littered with lists because lately I have to write down everything. At the moment, I still remember—without writing it down—to brush my teeth and put on clothes every day. So that’s a plus.

See, we’ve all been holding stuff together since school started, and I don’t know about you, but my systems naturally begin to break down in spring. Weariness has set in.

Not long ago I told Phil that I’m weary, and he said, “You’re what?” as if I’d lapsed into Spanish or something. People don’t use the word weary much, but weary fits this season well.

Some of my favorite verses contain weary, the first one being written by Paul: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” This verse is a bite-sized pep talk: don’t give up, keep planting good seeds, stay your eyes on the prize. The first part might be paraphrased as, “Let’s not get tired,” which is easier said than done. Everyone gets tired at some point.

Sometimes you need a pep talk, other times you need a nap. Jesus acknowledged this when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” We do get weary—of doing good things, of keeping life on track, of not giving up. We are limited, and Jesus offers rest.

Jesus gives us respite from the tyranny of to-do lists and cramming as much as possible into a single day. Are you weary? Let’s take Jesus up on the offer—to pause the striving and busy-ness that distract us from better things. If only for a moment, take a rest.

Thanks for reading! If you have some friends who might like reading this, would you share it? Take care, -Em.


Ronald McDonald’s Make It Click campaign made an impact on me as a kid. Remember this logo? Good stuff.



It’s the time of year when I get mad at trees. Normally, for forty-odd weeks of the year, I love trees. I appreciate their beauty, their time-tested grandeur.

Their bright-green vitality or bare-branched endurance.

Their shade.

But right now, I can’t breathe. So thanks a lot, Oak, Hickory, and Mulberry. Thanks for all the pollen in the air.

One nostril has been completely blocked for a day or two. No matter how much I blow my nose, it’s in a state of perma-clog. The other nostril, while sometimes clear, keeps me in suspense.

On the way to yoga class this week, I stopped by Walgreens. As I stood in the Allergy/Cold aisle looking for some remedy I haven’t yet tried, I spotted bottles of Liquid Plumr nearby — haven’t tried that. I ended up buying nose spray “for severe congestion,” or as I think of it, Sinus Drano.

I had signed up for the yoga class before realizing I wouldn’t be able to breathe well. The class was much harder than usual, given that you’re supposed to breathe through your nose.

I’m a yoga beginner, learning something new every time, but when I went to my very first class I kept thinking, “Why are we wasting so much time on breathing? Let’s get to the exercise already.” After a while, I picked up on the idea that coordinating breathing with movement is pretty much what it’s about. I learned that you inhale on lifting or opening movements and exhale while folding or twisting.

When I got to class, I warned the teacher that I was a mouth breather for the day. Rachel understood completely.

Whenever I get congested like this, I think of my friend Julie telling me about her son having a bad cold when he was little. Although he was miserable, he pointed out the bright side: at least he could still breathe out of his mouth. Last night as I tried to fall asleep, I popped a Benadryl and thanked God that at least I could breathe through my mouth.

Until recently, I hadn’t realized how much I take breathing for granted. At some point in the last year, though, I started a new habit. Upon first waking up, I thank God for the air in my lungs. Although my mind soon jumps to other things, I like this new habit of being grateful for that first breath of the day. It’s not promised, after all.

Thinking about breathing leads me to thankfulness for other forgotten things as well, like lungs that work 24/7 without my even thinking about it, the tiny bits of oxygen and carbon dioxide stashed in the backpacks of our red blood cells, the oft-neglected plants in our kitchen that clean the air in our house.

And, most of the time, I’m thankful for the trees that refresh the air outside. Thanks a lot, Oak, Hickory, and Mulberry. (I mean it this time.)

Thank you, Maple, Elm, and Birch.

Thank you, God, for trees. Thank you, God, for air.

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair . . .

-from Joyce Kilmer’s 1913 poem “Trees”


“Grandma Capilano,” the tallest tree in the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park of North Vancouver, BC

Once Upon a Rookie Night

I’ve written before about Friday nights in our family, a.k.a. Rookie Night, the evening we look forward to all week.

Rookie Night entails dinner (burgers, pizza, BBQ, and Chick-Fil-A are favorites), maybe a trip to the bookstore or quick grocery run, and a movie at home. Caroline picks the movie, which is often Lego-related or High School Musical. The usual bedtime curfew is not enforced. And sometimes, when Phil’s up to it, he and Caroline sleep on the living room floor under a tent rigged from a parachute thrown over the kitchen chairs and anchored with chip clips. I retire to an actual bed.

That’s Rookie Night.

It sounds kind of ridiculous, but Rookie Night is tradition. Sometimes Rookie Night is sacred.

One Rookie Night we went to Five Guys and ordered our usual fare. Five Guys is quick, the food is good, and the blaring classic rock takes me back to roller rink glory days of yore. Munching on peanuts while waiting for our food, I noticed when a voice rang out from the radio, “Josie’s on a vacation far away . . .” It’s one of those songs from the 80s that everyone instantly recognizes but only knows the words to the chorus.

At the chorus, the atmosphere in the restaurant shifted, as if we’d all been waiting for it. When the voice from the speakers sang, “I don’t wanna lose your love,” all the Five Guys workers sang: Tonight. I looked up and waited for the next line, “I just wanna use your love,” and fry cooks and grill cooks and condiment girls in hairnets belted out, Tonight.

This spontaneous breakout in song was kind of magical, like the traffic scene at the beginning of La La Land but with more grease in the air. When the chorus rolled around again, I was ready to sing along—Tonight—and caught the eye of the guy at the cash register. He flashed a sheepish grin and turned back to the register, embarrassed to be caught singing or embarrassed to be sung with. Probably both.

By the song’s end, you might recall, the chorus repeats, like, a dozen times. But we—the mustard slingers and bun toasters and potato choppers and me—were still singing along to the refrain: Tonight.

So, this song about a guy trying to cheat on a girl named Josie while she’s on vacation became a surprise sing-along, a sort of call and response. Strangely, it reminded me of when a priest prays a request and the congregation answers, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Although I wasn’t thinking about the meaning of the word “tonight” at the time, repeating it was like an acknowledgement of the present, gratitude for the presence of each other—the three of us celebrating Rookie Night and the people preparing the food.


Often, when I pick up Caroline from school I ask, “What’s the best part of your day so far?” Her answer is usually recess-related. My favorite response, though, is when she grins and says: “Right now.” Because that’s just how I feel on Friday evening.

What’s my favorite part of the week so far?

Sing it with me: Tonight.



Hey, there – thanks for reading! It means a lot. If you have friends who might like this, share it with them. -Em



My Sister-Daughter

When my daughter Caroline gets in a goofy, giggly mood, I see my younger sister Amanda in her. When we’re at my parents’ house, I sometimes slip and call her by my sister’s name.

Amanda and I are close in age, just a smidge less than two years. These days, she’s pretty serious and straightforward, but when we were kids, I’d do little things to make her laugh, and, once set off, she’d take a good while to return to sobriety after cackling, snorting, and falling out of her chair.

“Now, don’t get your sister wound up,” Mom might say. But it was already too late.

Similarly, when Caroline cracks up, long after we’re done laughing, she’s still carrying on, wiping tears from her eyes. Several times, I’ve mistakenly called her by my sister’s name when she gets super-silly. Something takes me back to third or fourth grade, and my daughter is suddenly my little sister.

We see Amanda often these days, which I love. But at times I treat my sister like a child, telling her how I would do things, offering opinions in order to put her out of the misery of indecision. To her, indecision isn’t miserable. And my two cents are worth just that.

And I’m not her mother.

Is this big-sisterly feeling toward a child a common flashback? Is the maternal feeling toward Sis the culmination of big-sisterhood?

Or is this garden-variety senility?

I remember my Aunt Ernie’s confusion in old age, calling me by my mom’s name in an otherwise lucid conversation. As she aged, she found it hard to keep the generations straight. At a certain point in adulthood, time doubles over on itself like one of those old, fold-up yardsticks.

It wasn’t that long ago I was tickling my little sister until she cried. But that was so many years ago. See, there’s the yardstick folding up.

Watch the hinges; they can pinch.

amanda & liney

Goofballs, left to right: Caroline & Amanda

“If only my mother had known I was her sister instead of her daughter,” Terry Tempest Williams wrote, describing a new sense of kinship realized after her mother’s death. The things they shared in common made more sense in terms of sisterhood. I didn’t understand this sentence until I called Caroline by my sister’s name.

I couldn’t pass for my daughter’s sister; I was nearly thirty-three when I had her and she looks like her dad. But when I try to make her laugh until she spits out her drink or nag her when she doesn’t answer a question directly, at that point, time folds up and she is my little sister.

Maybe these brief flashes are about me wanting to make up for her not having siblings. Or maybe sisterhood is a type of relationship worth aspiring to, even for folks who are already otherwise related. Anyway, this I know: my daughter is blessed to have my sister who is like her in so many ways—and who loves her every which way.

Thanks for reading! Ever call your child by the wrong name? I’d love to hear from you. And if you have friends who might like this, please share it with them. Take care, Em : )

Winner Winner, Sunday Dinner

I’m not much of a cook. I really do try, but my meals tend to be disappointing. Edible, for the most part, but lackluster.

Fortunately, one of my daughter’s favorite meals is Red Baron supreme pizza and a cup of applesauce. That I can do. She also likes cooked broccoli with salt and butter. Momma can do that! Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at cutting up an orange. Still, meat loaf is a gamble, spaghetti is a letdown, and I’ve pretty much given up on chicken of any kind except rotisserie.

Last week I had a rare success with tacos. I used ground turkey instead of beef and stand-up shells instead of fall-over-and-break shells. The difference was dramatic. The turkey tasted great. Stand-up shells take the stress out of eating tacos. Caroline even ate two whole bites before saying, “I’m full.”

However, on Sundays we eat really well. For many years now, my mother-in-law Natie has had us over for Sunday dinner. It used to be just Phil, me, and my brother-in-law Jay. Now we have Caroline, whose main goal at Sunday dinner is to make everyone laugh. We also have Jay’s wife, Amber, and sometimes Aunt Dezie. Next year, there’ll be a high chair at the table for Jay and Amber’s little one.

My mother-in-law is a very talented cook. She enjoys it, and it shows. My job, matched to my skill level, is to clear the centerpiece from the dining room table and place seven hot-pads down the middle like a landing strip. One hot-pad is for the rice cooker, and the others are for main dishes and sides and salad and sliced mango and avocado.

We realize how lucky we are to have this Sunday feast. Natie cooks Filipino classics—pork sinigang, chicken adobo, afritada, puchero—for her sons and herself, and she also prepares more Americanized dishes for the daughters-in-law and Caroline, like mostaccioli, chicken curry, scalloped potatoes, and salad. Hence, seven hot-pads. (I sometimes bring a foolproof pan of brownies or store-bought salad: staying in my lane.)

The dish everyone loves is Natie’s pancit—rice noodles stir-fried with cabbage, shredded chicken, mushrooms, and carrots, garnished with boiled eggs. Although Natie has shown me how to make it and written out a detailed recipe, my pancit is notably lacking. She’s probably keeping some key ingredient a secret. Eye of newt? Fish sauce? Never mind.

I try not to think about fish sauce.


Natie’s pancit. (Garnished by Yours Truly.)

Years ago, I watched Martha Stewart Living a lot, hoping to imitate Martha’s techniques for the perfect pot roast or tomato bisque. These days if I watch Martha, I have no intention of attempting the perfect soufflé — I just watch to be impressed. 

My mother-in-law’s cooking is just as impressive—even the aroma wafting from the kitchen is heavenly—but her efforts arise from a generous heart. She’s giving Caroline sweet memories of Grandma’s cooking for the days to come.

Her not-so-secret ingredient is love.

She cooks not to impress but to bless.

And so, every Sunday we are blessed.

Bless us, O Lord,

and these, Thy gifts,

which we are about to receive

from Thy bounty.

Through Christ, our Lord.


As always, thanks for reading! It means the world to me. If you have friends who might enjoy this, please share it with them.  -Em : )