finding peace

We arrived in Phnom Penh in late July. It began as one of the softest landings we’ve had. The trans-Pacific flight was predictably brutal but our excitement overshadowed all of that. We went to temporary housing for ten days, happy to have an immediate internet connection and access to two refreshing swimming pools. The Bushbaby had recently hit her stride back in the States with cannonballs and independent swimming and she was eager to continue in this 90 degree heat.

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Things went smoothly as we moved into our beautiful home in a great, walkable neighborhood, a ten minute tuk tuk ride from the embassy in one direction, 10 minutes to Colette’s school in the other. All of our household things met us at our new place the day we moved in, having traveled from Chile back in March. Snakes’ new truck had even made it here unscathed. I was amazed at our good fortune.

13920213_10153543233431710_5492241385250318703_oI snapped some quick “before” shots so I could do my favorite presto-change-o blog post to welcome you all into our new home once I got things sorted. We were humming along, Snakes adjusting to his new position, me and the Bushbaby unpacking and organizing things. I felt like we had finally shaken the wicked jet lag which had taken nearly two weeks!

And then….

I received an urgent text from my sister to call her immediately. Aw, I thought, her 12 year old family dog, a sweet old lady, weimy-mix had been up and down with health issues recently and I feared the worst. I signed in to skype and dialed her up, ready to listen to dog stories and offer comfort to my niece and nephew. But I was wrong. It was our mom. And she was dead.

This all happened a month ago, and now as I glance at the date- I realize it’s to the day. Nothing can ever prepare you for this. My mom was healthy. I HAD JUST SEEN HER. She was turning 70 in October. She was vibrant and creative and strong and funny. She was the lady you wanted to have a glass of wine with and brainstorm about everything, if you could only stop laughing long enough to jot some things down. She was my best friend. She was so many people’s best friend.

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Snakes got out of bed and onto the phone with his boss. We are given an allowance from the State Department for one bereavement ticket. The cost for my family to fly the next day to Michigan from Cambodia is something I’d rather not discuss, but I couldn’t understand the idea of doing this alone. I desperately needed those two with me for the 23 hour flight back home. This is why we have credit cards, right?

My sister and her family had gotten in a day before us from Colorado and started with the funeral arrangements. I admired her so greatly for finding the strength to discuss embalming and select appropriate casket-wear. I still couldn’t understand what it meant that our mom was dead. I stumbled through her house, running into her everywhere. Tripping over her shoes in the hallway, picking up her jacket that kept falling from it’s hook when I walked by. I looked at the tomatoes arranged on the windowsill in her kitchen and wondered if she’d bought them. I ate one whole. I put all of her clothes on, step-sistered my size tens into her size eights and wrapped myself up in her scarves. I slathered myself with her expensive face creams. I searched her lipsticks for a kiss she may have left behind. I replayed one of the many many many messages I have from her on my phone. “Hi Dollface! It’s your mommy!….”

Snakes took the kids out to movies, breakfasts, Lake Michigan and anywhere else in a 30 mile radius that seemed remotely like fun. My sister and I pressed on the best that we could. She went to the florist to commission a big tangle of wildflowers to be draped across her casket. Absolutely NO carnations!! Stop on the roadside for Queen Anne’s lace if you have to. She dropped the clothes at the funeral home. She touched up the electric yellow fingernail polish that had chipped from my mom’s nails. She met my mom’s hairstylist and dear friend who had offered to style her hair one last time. I wish I could say she was beautiful, but there is no beauty in the unexpected death of your mother.

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I spent my time organizing an after service luncheon in my mom’s garden. A neighbor had generously offered to have it catered, but for any of you that know me or have been following my blog- you know I couldn’t sit by while ham buns happened. Not while I was still drawing breath. I resolved to honor my mom in the only way I knew, throw a party. I hadn’t slept in days and the jet lag had me running on fumes. About the only thing I was capable of was chopping and whisking.

Snakes did a pulled pork. I threw together a tangy dijon potato and green bean salad, broccoli slaw, a giant pile of crudite with my mom’s famous blue cheese dressing. I juiced bags of citrus for carafes of grapefruit-forward margaritas. Girlfriends from Detroit brought lemon bars, a rhubarb blueberry pistachio crisp, coconut corn muffins with pineapple butter and chocolate chip cookies. When I tired in the kitchen, I went outside to string up these bamboo fans I’d found in one of the markets in Phnom Penh the day before we’d left.

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Everyone came back here after the funeral service. We played Loretta Lynn and BB King and Lucinda Williams. We drank margs, toasted to my beautiful mommy and watched her grandkids chase each other through her yard. This should’ve been her 70th birthday party. I kept imagining it was. That any minute she’d walk around the monster rose of sharon bush and squeal with laughter. I’d hand her a drink and give her a huge squeeze. She’d marvel at the Willy Wonka “lollipops” hanging from the trees, wheels already turning on how she’d fashion them into an elaborate mural on her dining room wall. I’d kiss her on both cheeks and look into the smiling eyes that are my own. I’d tell her what an incredible lady she is, how greatly I admire and love her. How much she inspires me every single day. All of these people would. All of these people who’s lives she’s touched, here in her backyard. What fun!!  All of these people eager to line up, raise their glass and share a laugh.

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I don’t know how to begin to handle this grief and this loss I feel.  It’s a dark cloud that follows me everywhere and I know once I slow down it is going to consume me. I keep moving forward. I know I can’t outrun it and I will eventually need to turn around, brace myself and step into it with as much grace as I can muster.

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the adventure continued.

IMG_9348Where were we now? Ah, yes. Reeling in one massive anchor and splashing southbound along the Chilean coast for a two week vacation through the fjords, around Cape Horn and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Five hours in, sea sickness swallowed the Bushbaby whole. (Note to all: preemptive dramamine never hurt anyone.) It took nearly four days and as many hours passed in the ship’s med unit receiving IV fluids to fully recover. But after she had her sea legs, there was no stopping her.hottub

Each night she was eager to check the scene at the Stardust Theatre, rushing to the front row for a seat, her pink crushed velvet cape billowing behind her. Never mind if the performer was a lounge singer, tango dancers, a magician, juggler or gaucho performance artists. (Or her very own mother vying for, and…ahem…winning, the title of Miss Norwegian Sun.) This kid LOVED it. When we got back to the room at the end of each day she would snag the next day’s schedule and implore us to tell her what performance awaited us the following evening.

We had sprung for a balcony cabin which was such a luxury. Watching the full moon rise over Patagonia while gliding through the Beagle channel, glass of wine in hand, bundled up on our private terrace-we’d never had such a relaxing vacation.

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IMG_9311IMG_9322My husband, the investigative reporter, thrives on research. He had set up rental cars and/or boats at our various ports so we could explore independently. Penguin colonies in southern Argentina, sweeping vistas on the Falkland Islands, a boat ride around the sea lions favorite rocks in Ushuaia. It was just the right amount of adventure, exploration and relaxation. IMG_9240IMG_9369IMG_9408

And now with SIX days remaining, I need to share a related story and what I maintain as a major foreign service stroke of luck. Coincidentally, another cruise line is doing their end of season, “repositioning” cruise THIS very weekend that we are set to leave. We were able to cost construct our ride home, which is actually less than the price of 3 full-fare airline tickets from here back to the states. So this Sunday instead of rushing around an airport and squeezing ourselves onto a cramped and exhausting overnight flight, we are climbing aboard another cruise liner and chugging up the coast, passing through the Panama Canal and ending in Miami where we will begin our home leave before arriving back in DC the second weekend of May. In late July we leave for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. So we have some time for visiting family and friends and more importantly, time enough to figure out if there’s a ship leaving from Baltimore and heading to Southeast Asia. Let me know if you hear of anything. IMG_9275IMG_9424IMG_9448IMG_9450IMG_9351IMG_9561

Tick-tock

IMG_8223Seven days left. The countdown has begun and I believe it is a fine time to plunk down in front of the computer and do some blogging. I’m disappointed with myself for only managing two posts in all of last year. I am amazed with bloggers who are posting regularly while working full time jobs- since I’m relying on that as my excuse. What follows is around 5 posts packed into one.

Two years have gone by and it’s never enough. Two years offer a taste of that sweet spot when you’ve got your life as organized as lives get with friends made and routines established. And here we go again- time to sell the plants, just as they’ve revealed who prefers which window and how long you can be gone before everyone starts to lose it.

IMG_8453Last I checked in was early November. My birthday came on the 13th and a friend and I took a long weekend to Elqui Valley, filled with vineyards and pisco distilleries. It is a 6-7 hour drive northwest out of Santiago. We enjoyed a relaxing few days out of the city and I logged the longest stretch I had spent away from the Bushbaby to date. (She’s 4 –and a half!! –now). Back in Santiago that Sunday, I was welcomed home with a butterfly cake, birthday songs, gifts and endless kisses. A perfect ending to the weekend and ideal preparation for what was soon to come.

IMG_8475December kicked off with our second annual Gingerbread house party. Last year we kept it to a modest roar with 3 of her friends, but had a harder time narrowing the guest list this time around. Snakes and I started early in the week leading up. We mixed, rolled, baked and assembled EIGHT houses. Colette was SO excited to host her friends and reveal the thrilling project waiting on the dining room table. She parked herself at the front door, as a good hostess should, eager to greet her guests as they stepped off the elevator.

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Mountains of gummies spilled from a center bowl on the table, individual dishes of royal icing to stick everything into place. A success for sure- and a tradition to continue.

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The weekend after was her end of year party and ballet recital at school. It was much more emotional than I expected. She got a special little mention in the welcome speech from the school’s director about how when she’d arrived two years ago, as the school was just opening its doors, she was the first english speaker and knew no spanish. When she walked out onto stage to introduce herself on this night, she did it first in English and then followed up with Spanish. I try not to brag (too much) on here, but I was so proud of her!

Christmas Eve and Day were spent with friends having BBQs and pool parties. I was more than a little distracted since I was heading to Chengdu, China for a 3 week work trip that evening! As I mentioned before, I’ve been working at the embassy this tour. A rare opportunity presented itself (for any working spouse with a current top secret security clearance) to take a temporary assignment in Chinese consulates as a biometrics clerk. Our circumstances and good fortune allowed me to accept.

I hopped on a plane at 11pm on Friday evening and stepped out into the bitter Chengdu haze around 8pm on Sunday.

IMG_8907 (1)This was the view on most days from the window of my hotel. It’s a color photograph. Despite this dreary forecast, I was entirely pacified by the bright flavors and endless selections of addictively delicious and affordable food. After a solid 6 hours of recording fingerprints each morning, I would walk the streets of the consulate neighborhood taking photos and pushing into busy cafes with a smile, a nod and a fistful of cash. My vocabulary was limited to words like “right hand”, “left hand”, “thumbs, please” and “press harder”.  As such, I was only able to order by motioning to a fellow diner’s lunch and smiling while offering cash to the clerk. I never had much success ordering a beverage, the closest I came was to receive a tall glass of murky noodle water one afternoon. Oh, but the FOOD!IMG_9094

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Absolutely nothing like the glossy brown gravy choked “Chinese food” of my midwestern youth. I would happily return for this experience alone. Once other temporary assignment officers arrived, both of whom spoke fluent Mandarin, doors blew wide open and group lunches blessed my days. Instead of my usual modest bowl of noodles (around $2), we’d dine together and order many dishes to share. It was absolute heaven, each plate better than or perfectly complimentary to the last.

The 3 weeks passed quickly, but I missed my sweeties with a palpable and increasing actual heartache. I arrived back in Santiago on a Friday morning and that Saturday began our family vacation, our first cruise ever, a two week journey from Valparaiso, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Did you know they offer free child care?) I hope to pick up tomorrow evening right here since this is already too long and I need to get crackin’ on this packin’! The computer will be gone in two more days so it’s my last chance for a while. Until then, wish me smooth sailing! IMG_9186

All this time

IMG_8172I’m deciding to just jump back in over here. No microphone tapping, no apologies, no excuses. There’s too much to share, personally, professionally and of course my foreign service/expat blogger duty to let you in on my perspective of life in Santiago.

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I seriously considered shuttering and bulldozing this blog and starting fresh. It’s been nearly a year. I’ve said it before, here I’m saying it again. I love this online community and my piecemeal scrapbook. So onward I will press.

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Quickly, the biggest events nutshell: Right around the time that my adventurous in-laws and our niece arrived for a 3 week visit back in February, the 8 month wait for my security clearance ended. I’ve been working full time at the embassy ever since as a roving OMS (Office Management Specialist). (I am infinitely grateful for the paycheck but my creative side itches non stop for a good scratch.) Snakes went for a temporary assignment to Guayaquil, Ecuador for the month of March, during which time my dear auntie came for 2 weeks to help out. Some of our favorites from A-100 currently posted in Suriname came down for a long Father’s day weekend. And finally, we took our R&R to the states for nearly all of August where we attended a family reunion in northern Michigan and spent the Bushbaby’s 4th birthday with family in Pennsylvania. (R&R tickets have since been revoked; we were the last family at post to receive this benefit having been paneled JUST before they decided to take them away. What luck!) Ideally I will flesh all of this out with stories and photos, but not making any promises. Now then… back to the present.

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For weeks now, nay months! leading up to Halloween the only thing I heard from La resident Princesa was that she and her crew were all planning to dress as Elsa for the festivities. I shook my head, smelled the defeat closing in, knowing that my annual fantasy as a costume designer was nearly snuffed out. Throwing my Hail Mary, I suggested that she and I head to the fabric markets and carefully select the most sparkly, shimmering icy blue fabrics our money could buy. Mama could fashion them into the fanciest Elsa gown that Santiago has ever seen! Tears. THIS was met with tears. It MUST be purchased through the computer screen or it just will not do!IMG_8096

I realize how this sounds- that I wasn’t allowed to make my daughter’s costume from scratch. I know plenty of parents would rejoice in this good fortune, dialing it in to Amazon, shelling out the 30 bucks and checking it off the list. Perhaps you’re wondering how I allow my 4 yo to dictate such orders to her own mother. To that I say, I’m working full time now and I’ve learned to choose my battles.

Even so, I couldn’t shake the image of myself curled up on the sofa, sewing project in hand, tacking ancient bits of chandelier crystals I’ve been dragging around for years, yearning for such a debut on the intricate bodice of an ice queen costume. With less than a week to go and Snakes out of town, Colette and I were enjoying a movie night. Making a dinner of popcorn and milkshakes while watching “How to Train Your Dragon”.

I casually mentioned how cool I thought the blonde little rough and tumble character, Astrid is. How much of a resemblance I found between her and my own little hooligan snuggled in next to me. Hmmmm. Seed planted….. Ten minutes later, my heart soared when she turned to me and said, “Mama, I don’t want to be Elsa. I want to be a Viking Warrior.”I casually mentionbed

I hopped to it in the coming days. Any blocks of time which presented themselves were spent punching holes, slicing scraps of leather to fringe, stringing up skulls and setting rivets. Between Snakes and his cabinet of curiosities and my leather studio, we had a respectable arsenal of raw materials. In the end, she only wore it to one of the 3 parties she attended but I’ll chalk it up as a victory for viking warriors and creatively oppressed office workers everywhere.

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el poof de peru

IMG_5996As mentioned in the last post, we recently spent a long weekend with a dear friend in Lima. Seemed like a shame to get all the way there and not make it out of the capitol, but such is travel with a tot. Plus, our schedules were fairly taxed back in Santiago with holiday commitments so a long weekend was really all we had to spare.

Our friend lives in the Miraflores neighborhood which is perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean. We passed our mornings sipping flawless Peruvian coffee and looking out at the hazy horizon. I hear this is close to the number one complaint of those posted in Lima, the incessantly overcast skies. We were lucky enough to have the clouds break to blue a couple of afternoons during our stay. Though there for a short time, I didn’t mind the grey at all. I love that dreamy, muted palette.IMG_5726IMG_5684 IMG_5716 IMG_5700

I knew that the kitchens of Lima were highly respected in the worldwide “food scene”, but figured this was more of a play for tourism than an integral part of their culture. SO INCREDIBLY WRONG. Markets were bursting with table after table of reasonably priced organic fruits, veggies, legumes, grains, sprouts, coffee, chocolate. You name it, they had 5 different varieties. The thing that really stuck with me was that it didn’t seem like it was totally geared toward wealthy “food-y” expats (and priced accordingly). In my limited time to observe, there seemed to be a fairly decent mix of shoppers. IMG_5665 IMG_5661It was nearly torture to not give into my urge to fill every pocket, shoe and empty carry-on with multi colored heirloom beans and delicacies like quinoa flakes, cacao nibs, maca powder and adzuki sprouts. Lima is a food loving dietitian’s paradise. Oh, and from there we went to the craft markets. Could my heart stand another surge of this colorful and delicious inspiration?

IMG_5916Apparently not. Snakes! Grab the defibrillators and hand me the wallet! The Peruvian textiles had my mind spinning with projects more quickly than the money could change hands. If it wasn’t hand-woven, vibrantly dyed wools, it was baby alpaca snugglies and yarns. On previous visits, my girlfriend had ferreted out a few vendors who actually sold some of the fabrics raw by the meter instead of already committed to cushion covers or blankets. The ones we fell for had a salvaged edge on either side of the 12″ width. Perfect for an ottoman! IMG_5918After some quick calculations and conversions in my head, I bought around 5 meters. At six bucks a meter, it was taking shape within a reasonable budget. The next step was to figure out what to use for the stuffing. Something sturdy, preferably eco-friendly, maybe recycled/repurposed and ideally free. I read a few tutorials on line which all suggested buying a giant bag of beanbag filler from Walmart. WHAT??!? That didn’t check any of my boxes. “A giant bag of beanbag filler from Walmart”- just typing (then retyping) those words makes me feel filthy and evil, like those words and I just strangled a pod of dolphins in the great Pacific trash vortex.

So I didn’t go that route because I don’t need that on my conscience. I remembered from my super brief stint as an embassy worker back in September the insane amount of paper shredding that’s done daily. After checking with the appropriate officials, I was allowed to remove a big bag of fluffy shred from the recycling bin. IMG_5992It worked out perfectly! Moderately lightweight, very firm and if I ever need a handful or two of extra stuffing to fluff her back up, I have a good source. I made an inner box cushion from old fabrics to lend structure and keep things more contained. Zipped it all together on the machine and hand stitched the final seam. I am pleased with how it came together so quickly and simply. My Peruvian poof and other “big” purchase, a thick wool blanket turned rug, are perfectly vibrant reminders of our quick but memorable visit to Lima.IMG_5994 IMG_1828

 

tradition ambition

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Seems like I’m just rolling from holiday to holiday here on the blog and to be perfectly honest, that’s fairly reflective of life in real time. I’m always composing blog posts in my head, but as you see, they rarely make it to the screen.  Halloween faded quickly into a pre-birthday, weekend-long yoga intensive at my local (and incredibly gorgeous) Iyengar yoga studio with Manouso Manos. Despite the hefty dose of inspiration, my mid-November birthday found me introspective and angsty, as usual.

I was hired at the embassy back in August as a sort of roving girl Friday. Over 4 months later, I am still waiting for the security clearance. Our tour may be over by the time I actually start the job. In the meantime, I hosted a holiday craft market in our home since I wasn’t hearing many solid details about the embassy’s Christmas bazaar. Both events came together beautifully in the end, more on these later.

We took advantage of a long weekend in early December to visit a friend in Lima, Peru.  From the dramatic Pacific cliffside condos to their endless selections of artisan textiles and farmers markets, my mind and belly still hum with inspiration. Heirloom beans, grains, sprouts, veggies, fruits and seafood are abundant and affordable. Sorry for the teaser, but again (and I promise!!), more on this later.

(Instead of backtracking too much, I’m working to tie the above topics into “real time” projects with accompanying posts. Don’t worry, I’ll save you the navel gazing birthday blues!)

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Fast forward to the more recent past: Last weekend we hosted a gingerbread house decorating party for the Bushbaby and 3 of her buddies. Neither of us had done this before. My experience was limited to incredibly fond but distant memories of my Aunt Jayne’s annual contribution to the Christmas party at my grandparent’s. I can remember a collective trembling anticipation as my cousins, sister and I watched their arrival from the warmth of our grandma’s kitchen. The masterpiece perched on her extended arms as she and my uncle navigated the icy driveway. I called her the other day and she had a good laugh, reminding me of her “adobe years” when she couldn’t get the roof to stay upright. Of course in my memory, it was always on the level of Christmas miracle . A house made entirely from giant cookie parts and covered in sweets!? And WE GET TO EAT THIS?!? Imagine that.

Fast forward thirty-five years.

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Snakes found a basic recipe on line and last Monday we began the weeklong evening bake-a-thon. By Friday night we had amassed enough pieces to build 4 houses. Armed with pastry bags full of sticky royal icing, we got to work. Just before midnight our project finally seemed like it would be a success. Sounds like a huge undertaking, but like anything, the more you do it, the more proficient you become. And let’s be honest, it’s really all about the decorating. As long as your structure is relatively sturdy, you’re in business.IMG_5867

Of course their dedication to decoration was inversely proportional to the amount of decoration consumed. After about 20 minutes, they sprung from the table and ran in circles around the house, taking turns chasing each other on the scooter, balance bike and plasma car. The parents had a surprisingly relaxed time finishing things up despite the fever pitch of chaos rising around us.

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Before things ran too far off the rails, I fed everyone a quick and simple grilled cheese lunch and soon after they were off with their own masterpieces in tow. IMG_5905

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Snakes was horrified when later that evening I snapped a chunk of gingerbread from the facade. “You’ve got to be kidding me!! After all of that work! You’re just tearing in like a hungry bear. You have zero self control.” Since I can’t really argue with that last bit, especially when it comes to baked goods, I need to know. Should the house rest, undisturbed for days of admiration by all who pass? Or are we at immediate liberty to see this Christmas miracle through to it’s crumbly spicy end? When is it appropriate to hungry bear it on in to your child’s masterpiece?

pink enough

IMG_5494Despite our best efforts to encourage a more interesting and unique costume, our 3 year old Bushbaby was bitten by the pink princess sparkle fairy bug and she has got the fever. Turns out that she has a mind of her own with a strong will to match.  I was really hoping to trump last year’s Debbie Harry by following up with a wild haired, shawl draped Stevie Nicks. Thinking maybe this could be the start of a decade long series of 80s rock icons?! Annie Lennox? Tina Turner? Now this has potential. In reality, the window for imposing your own Halloween fantasies is a narrow one. Foolish of me to think I’d be choosing her costumes going forward. And the fairy did turn out pretty cute.

I knew last year would be hard to beat on many fronts. Halloween on Capitol Hill is a unique treat. Jack-o-lanterns flicker from every porch as swarms of bees, fairies, pirates and superheroes buzz from one brownstone to the next. The evening air carries just the right amount of chill to remind you of the seasons changing but with any luck makes no demands for a costume-altering coat over top.  It’ll always feel strange to me south of the equator, especially this time of year, so filled with traditions and memories of growing up in the chilly midwest. In the southern hemisphere, the mercury rises as we head into the holidays.IMG_5462Up until the last possible moment she wavered between pink sparkle fairy and the ubiquitous Ice Queen, Elsa. I feared that after all of my work on her homemade costume she’d insist on a scratchy old princess dress. Tragedy for a mom who actually enjoys this sort of thing. In my experience, there are so few opportunities for EFMs (spouses of foreign service officers) to shine and costume making just happens to be a tiny source of pride for this one.IMG_5445

I used mostly things I had kicking around the studio or that the Bushbaby had in her closet. We picked up the unapologetically pink flowers at our neighborhood’s equivalent of a dollar store. I tacked them to an old pink tank top and a pair of shoes she no longer wears since they’re not pink. I made the wings by bending and twisting some wire into shape and securing fabric around the edges with a crude whipstitch. I added the glitter when after showing them to my girl with pride sparkling in my eyes, she looked at me and said, “They’re not pink enough.”IMG_5503 The embassy did a tremendous job hosting a trick or treat party. There were nearly a hundred kids roaming the halls, filling their sacks one generous fistful of candy at a time. Offices replaced bulbs with red or black lights, piped in scary music and draped the cubicles with black gauzy fabrics and spider webs. It was just spooky enough to feel transformative. We rode the elevator to the top floor then circled our way back down to the basement.

IMG_5513 IMG_5526 After she filled her sack so full she could no longer carry it, we decided to take the party outside with a few other friends. They tore around the embassy grounds in a sugary blur. These memories we are making may lack the time worn traditions that I yearn to create for her but I know they’ll be happy ones. And now I’ve got a whole year ahead of us to talk her into how much fun it would be to channel Stevie for 2015.IMG_5549

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