September 5, 2016


My grandma June passed away this weekend at the age of 91.
Nana (what most of us grandkids called her) was a part of so many lives, perhaps something a little different to each of us.  This is what she was to me.
She was the oldest of three sisters and little brother, Jackie.  Her parents were Metta & Ernest Stewart. I never knew her dad, but Great Grandma Stewart lived a near-century life as well. Nana always called her "Mother."
She married my grandpa, John Darvin Simmons when she was 17. Had her first child at 20 (8 pounds, 8 ounces), delivering 11 babies over the course of 22 years, with children under her roof for 4 decades.  I thought of her often during my own uncomfortable 3rd and 4th pregnancies. Eleven. Uffda.
She had 29 grandchildren, 50+ great grandchildren, and half a dozen great-great grandchildren. Her genes carry on through nearly a hundred of us. Surprisingly, Mason and Eric are the only twins. (But they are definitely not the only ones with cowlicks.)
Add son- and daughter-in-laws, spouses and more, and family gatherings have always been big.  Holidays were a full house growing up.  
When I was very small, she had horses named Sugarfoot and Feiry (I've never tried to spell this horse's name before, I may have it wrong), an accordion, and a little dog named Heidi. 
Nana often stayed for extended periods with us when I was growing up.  We played many hands of rummy and games of 10,000.  She was not one to play down to grandchildren, we had to learn to play up to her.  She was always working on crocheting a blanket (one for each new baby and graduation in the family) and had a game of solitaire, a crossword, or puzzle of some kind going.  Nana was sharp and her handwriting was beautiful.
A fine seamstress, she altered my wedding dress with skilled hand.  Her chocolate chip cookies were thick. It made her smile with satisfaction that my kids always drank all their milk.  She did not like heights and didn't drive.  She was a weather watcher.
While she lived and traveled often between northern Iowa and northern Minnesota, she lived fairly close by most of my life.  We were even neighbors for a short while; we lived in an apartment 2 doors down for 6 months while building our house.
She was a meticulous housekeeper and laundress. She ironed.
I preferred visiting with Nana one-on-one in my adult years. When there wasn't a crowd, she had much to say. I enjoyed hearing her memories of being pulled to school over snowdrifts in a horse drawn sled, with heated slates tucked under wool blankets to keep their feet warm.
She carried with her memories of the Great Depression, her husband was wounded by shrapnel in the South Pacific in WWII, and she sent sons off to Vietnam.  She saw great change in her lifetime and wondered more and more what our world was coming to.  She disliked the internet.
She was healthy the majority of her 91 years, declining rapidly this past week.
Thinking of her kids, as it's been a tough and tiring time for them. 
She is remembered by many.

My maternal grandparents, June & John Simmons
Nana with her 10 kids, Thompson Park Family Reunion 1988-ish  

Nana and I, my wedding day 1997

Nana, Johnathan & Beau on her 90th birthday, 2015
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January 23, 2016

Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas

Last April we went on a Californian adventure so overwhelmingly full and varying in sights and experiences, I didn't know where to begin when we got home.  (I think we began by heading straight to the Canadian border for a high school baseball game.  Life doesn't pause.)
With some time gone by, many highlights stand out on their own. 
Recollecting one of them today..

After making our way down the breathtaking Big Sur Coast, 80+ miles of intense hairpin twists, turns, and cliffs behind us, our route evened out more low and smooth.  We'd had a full day already and were content as we settled into cruising speed and wide open spaces.  The ocean at our side, the late afternoon sun shining down, the Pacific Coast Highway stretched out in front of us.

Cruising along, I spotted what I thought were a good number of seals between curves in the shoreline.  A few miles further along, no doubt about it, I glimpsed more.
Then, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. 
We'd reached the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals.

We pulled into the gravel parking lot off the highway. No visitor center, no tourist shop, just a great long boardwalk for respectful viewing of thousands of these creatures.
I was tickled pink!

At one time, humans had killed elephant seals to near extinction. They were thought to be extinct in the late 1880s.  Now protected, they are one of the greatest recoveries our continent has seen.
At this site there were no elephant seals before 1990.  Now it's a safe haul out site for birthing, breeding, molting and resting for several thousand of them.  (About 17,000 according to Friends of the Elephant Seal.)

The giant adult males (the ones who give elephant seals their names with their trunk-like noses)   were off diving the oceans deep during our April visit.  Adult males can weigh up to 7 times more than adult females.. up to 5,000 pounds.  I've seen video of those bulls, who fight violent, bloody battles.  They are a sight!   We visited the rookery at a more peaceful time when the "cuter" females and juveniles were there to molt. 
Elephant seals go through what is called a "catastrophic molt." 
They were at all different phases.  Some looked rough and tattered as they shed their old skin.  Others looked velvety smooth.  Juvenile males practiced fighting, but there was mostly a lot of napping or jostling for a better napping position going on.

Mitch didn't seem as smitten with the elephant seals as I was.  Maybe he thought they were awkward and made rude sounds and had snotty noses. (This was true. They smelled strongly, too.)  But I could have watched and taken photos 'til the sun went down.  There's just something about observing wildlife in its natural habitat.  I was absolutely enthralled with these seals!  Everything about them was interesting; their behavior.. how some were so still it seemed they couldn't possibly be alive.. I'd watch until they'd finally take a breath.  How others seemed intent on jostling, pestering, or stealing a spot.  The noise.  The way they use their flippers like fingers to scratch their bellies.  The way they flip sand onto themselves.  The trails they left on the beach. 

I had a hard time tearing myself away.
There were so many of them!  Even Mitch agrees that aspect was pretty neat to see.

When we got home I was intrigued to learn all about elephant seals.  They are remarkable deep divers with fascinating physical features that allow them to do so.
If you're ever in the San Simeon / Piedras Blancas area, you've got to stop and see this safe haven of theirs.. 
It was an unforgettable experience.

Peace, Love, and So Many Seals!

Sharing with Our World
Eileen's Critters

January 1, 2016

Five Things That Shaped Our Year [2015]

For about 15 years, I wrote an annual Christmas letter.  I stopped last year, but it's still a time I like to reflect, and I have been.
A year.  365 days.  525,600 minutes.  What shaped them?  What really mattered to us? 
Our days, weeks, and months are pretty full.  But these five things came to me clearly as the highlights, milestones, changes, and challenges that shaped our 2015. 

1.  Mitch and I visited Yosemite / Kings Canyon / Sequoia National Parks.
The first book we bought as a young married couple was a book on National Parks.  I had dreamed of visiting Yosemite ever since.
Yosemite was just one of the highlights on our 2015 adventure.  Mitch especially appreciated the Giant Sequoias. We cruised down Big Sur, where we spotted gray whales swimming below us from a cliff.  We saw (smelled, and heard) the Piedras Blancas elephant seals near San Simeon.  These were fantastic experiences to add to our life's collection.

2.  Wookie joined our family. 
8 months old, she's currently on her first pheasant hunting trip.  Those of us who stayed home feel like home is a little incomplete without her.  A certain 8 year old boy can't wait to hug her when she gets back.  Wookie has left her paw print on our 2015, and no doubt, our lives from here on out.  The level of adoration for her in this family is through the roof.  So is her character.

3.  Mason and Eric are in their senior year.  We gained adult children.
Since their 18th birthday, I've been asked a lot what it's like to have adult kids.  For now it's the same.  They go to school and basketball practice, haul firewood, help out, and make it home by their same old curfew.  But times are changing for our family.  I felt it Christmas morning, as I did throughout the year, the value of the here and now in 2015.  It mattered a great deal to me to focus on our family of seven before these two are off to take on their future. 
(They've both zeroed in on pursuing education in the electrical field after high school.)   

4.  Doing what's best for each of our kids involved changes this year.
They've been kind of big, sometimes challenging, and a little scary.  But we did it.  And we're so glad! 

Lilly (11) marched into a new school with ten times as many kids in her grade as her old one.. with a sureness I was in awe and admiration of.  She is so happy.  I am so happy for her. 
She ran her first 5k and played in her first band performance (alto sax).  Those six graders and their instructor knocked my socks off.
What I wanted most for my daughter was that she be able to soar confidently in her own sky, whatever that may be. - Helen Claes 

Beau and Johnathan are attending 3rd and 7th grades right here at home, with me as their primary educator.  It's challenging, but I respect the academy and curriculum they're a part of, and I'm amazed at all we're learning and accomplishing together.  We're being rewarded with the sure knowledge that they're learning, gaining, and happy. 
We like being happy around here.   
Bonus: While they're learning better than ever, they're also getting to spend much more time outdoors.  We like fresh air, too!

(Johnathan, 13, has grown over 5 inches this year.)

5.  Every year has its ups and downs.
A challenge for us this year was worrying about the health of one of our kids.  Beau had episodes of fainting / severe drops in blood pressure throughout 2015.  We don't know what's caused this, but he had a boatload of tests and procedures that all let us know (after first putting me through the wringer) that Beau's heart is strong and healthy, and all is well inside his thinking cap.  What have we gained from this?  Beau has kept my focus pretty sharp on what matters.  I'm an extremely thankful mom as we wrap up 2015.

"I think this is how we're supposed to be in the world - present and in awe." - Ann Lamott

I started writing this New Year's Eve.  It's now well past midnight.
Peace, Love, and Happy 2016!