Birthday Vacation, D.C. Edition: Day 1.

BFFs

Obligatory birthday selfie. Note: neither of us are wearing makeup because we’re headed to the spa. Hopefully you consider posting this pic “brave” and not “stupid.”

Believe me when I say that no one in the world needed this birthday vacation more than I did this year. I mean, if you follow this blog you have a decent idea of the kind of crap the universe has been hurling at me. But that isn’t even the entire picture.

So, yeah. I needed this. Badly.

Day 1 started off with me paying the mid-month bills, because I am – above all else – a responsible adult. Once I got the grownup stuff out of the way, I loaded up the car and headed to Wendy’s.

Our first stop was…Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s sort of a tradition, especially when we’re heading south. But then it was back on the road and onto our nation’s capital.

We rolled into town around 12:30. Hotwire had landed us a room at the Hotel Palomar, on P Street in Dupont Circle. From the website the place looked posh but it was NOTHING compared to the actual hotel. A valet greeted us and took our car (for a steep fee, of course, but we have 24/7 in-out privileges and the room itself was very affordable). The lobby was gorgeous – super plush and with a real fire burning on one side.

I have to give this place major props. One, they let us check in early. Two, when we got there, they decided to change our room from the prepaid king size (with Hotwire, you don’t get to choose) to one with two queen beds. We got vouchers for free drinks and learned that they serve wine and snacks in the lobby every night from 5 to 6. Everyone was so nice and accommodating. It’s honestly one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had.

And then we saw our room.

Hotel Palomar Room

Can you believe that shiz?

We did some quick unpacking because we are nerds like that, then headed over to Teaism for lunch. It was about a five-minute walk from the hotel. We selected it because of its proximity to both the hotel and the spa we were off to afterward, but oh – it was lovely. Obviously the name tells you that tea is their bailiwick, but the food was tasty and perfect for a spa day. We each got bento boxes (or, as my mom used to call them, “benito boxes”). Wendy had the salmon while I opted for the vegetarian, mostly because it had spaghetti squash and pepitas in it. Both were crazy tasty and now Wendy wants to eat every meal at Teaism (no joke).

Bento Box Lunch

Then it was off to Spa Logic, for our half day of pampering. When we got the magical Groupon deal, we had no idea how close this place would be to our hotel. Literally a couple of blocks. It’s as if all of the stars aligned for us.

Wendy started off with the massage portion while I went off with Lana, the facialist. She was a small, soft-spoken woman who nonetheless had ZERO problems lecturing me on how I was taking care of my skin. I needed Vitamin K cream to hide the capillaries in my cheeks. Vitamin C serum to stop the signs of aging (this she felt was DIRE). I needed to stop relying on the “sun cream” in my moisturizer and use a separate sun cream. My pores were filthy. Had I ever considered full-face waxing?

Even so, I loved Lana, because I love getting facials. I haven’t had one since our last birthday trip, because I’m also cheap, but still.

An hour later, Wendy and I traded spots and I landed on Monica’s massage table. The Groupon was for a “reflexology” massage. I didn’t know what that meant, but I figured it would be massage-like and that’s all I needed to know.

Let me tell you: Reflexology massage is hardcore. At least, Monica’s version was. She did a lot of painful poking, squeezing, pulling, rubbing. At points I was singing Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in my head. No joke.

I think it’s safe to add reflexology massage to the master list of Things That Lara Does Not Enjoy All That Much.

Later I told Wendy that half the time I felt like I was a lifeless body she encountered and she was shaking me to see if I was dead or not. Parts were okay, though. During the second half, Monica spent a lot of time on my feet and calves, and that was nicer. In between, there was a weird butt rubbing thing that caught me off guard, but I tried to just go with it.

Then we were whisked off to the basement for manis, pedis, and complimentary glasses of wine. I chose a lovely ruby color for my toes and a burnished gold for my barely there fingernails. Wendy went cherry on the toes and shell pink on the hands.

Mani Pedi Time

The mani-pedis were fine but nothing special. When we were done, I let Mike (the one who’d been working on my nails) rip the excess cavewoman hair from my eyebrows. He left behind two red welts on my right one. I never have luck with waxing. Or threading. Hence the reason I had cavewoman eyebrows in the first place.

Back to the hotel, where they were having Happy Hour. Another complimentary glass of wine (theme for the weekend: people getting us tipsy for free), some crackers and gourmet olives and we were happy ladies.

After a quick freshening up (which involved reapplying makeup over our newly facialed skin), we walked half a block to Panas Gourmet Empanadas for dinner. It’s a fast casual type place. We got a tray of empanadas for two, selecting eight different flavors so we could sample as much as possible. It came with razor-thin plantain chips and four dipping sauces. The crust on the empanadas was crisp and the fillings were inventive. My favorite was the BrieArt (brie with mushrooms and artichoke hearts) Wendy liked the CubaNovo (roasted pork, onions, cilantro, and lime). Best of all, the meal was CHEAP – only $16 for everything.

Yards of Empanadas

Using our superior navigation skills, we found the Dupont Circle Metro station and took the red line to Union Station, where we picked up our Monuments by Moonlight tour. (Tip: you save 10% when you book online, which makes it more affordable than the Goldstar deal.) We loaded the Old Time Trolley, helmed by the affable “Hoya Hank,” our tour guide for the evening.

When the weather is warm, the top of the trolley is mostly open. In the winter, the windows are encased in vinyl. This helps keep things warm(ish) but it also obscures the sights and makes for poor photography. Even so, there were three stops on the tour where we were allowed to get off and explore. The first was right on the water and it was OH-EM-GEE cold. Like, chilled-to-the-bones cold. Still, I’d never seen the MLK or FDR monuments, so that was cool (in the figurative sense, I mean).

The next stop was to a place I’d also never seen in person: the famed U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial commemorating the Battle of Iwo Jima. We only had five minutes at that stop, so there wasn’t much lingering. We also drove by Arlington Cemetery. You couldn’t see much, because it was dark, but you could make out the rows and rows of white headstones. It was eerie.

Iwo Jima Memorial

The final stop on the tour was the Lincoln Memorial. This was a place I had been to before, years ago. In fact, when I did the math in my head, I’m pretty sure my dad took me there when he was the age I am now.

We walked down to check out the Vietnam Memorial, which was also difficult to see in the dark, and then got back on the bus. Some of our more adventurous comrades managed to see the WWII memorial and Korean War memorial as well.

Hank was full of interesting trivia and historical anecdotes. Wendy said, “He makes me want to see a bunch of things I never wanted to see before.”

The tour wrapped at 10, and we made an impulse decision to head out to U Street for second dinner (“It’s a late-night snack!” Wendy said). We’d been trying to figure out how to fit the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl into our itinerary and weren’t able to. So this was a perfect detour.

There’s a sign behind the counter declaring that the only people who eat free there are Bill Cosby and the Obamas. I wondered if the Cos was still welcome. I’m guessing yes, because his mug is EVERYWHERE.

Ben's Chili Bowl Hearts Bill Cosby

We ordered what you’re supposed to order: two half smokes with chili and the works. We also opted for a side of cheese fries and a vanilla milkshake to split.

Half Smokes

I’d been to Ben’s Chili Bowl once, at least a decade before. Some friends and I bought tickets to see Cat Power at the 9:30 Club and ate there before. That night it had been crazy crowded, but at 11 on a Thursday? Not so much.

It had taken us about 45 minutes to get to Ben’s, because the DC Metro runs slowly at night and the trip required two trains. After our half smokes I felt like I was going to fall asleep right at the table. So I suggested that we treat ourselves to a cab ride back to the hotel, which was literally a mile and a half away (but would’ve likely taken us another 45 minutes to get to by train).

Our driver was like the Best Cab Driver Ever. His vehicle was clean, he drove like we would drive, and he kept up a lovely stream of conversation. We learned he was from Nigeria and visited his parents there once a year. He’d been to Delaware, he told us, and he liked it. Almost moved there, even, but cab drivers can’t make a decent living like they can in D.C.

It was the perfect ending to a great first day!

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How to plan a kick-ass girlfriends getaway.

The best way to see the Grand Canyon? Helicopter, of course. Our first annual birthday getaway, 2010.

The best way to see the Grand Canyon? Helicopter, of course. Our first annual birthday getaway, 2010.

It’s January, which means Wendy and I are about to embark on our annual birthday getaway.

A little background: Wendy and I are practically birthday twins, born a week apart. In high school, we even had a Doublemint-themed joint birthday party at our friend Ebbie’s house.

At some  point, Wendy pitched the idea of us going to Las Vegas for our 35th birthdays. The idea became a reality and marked our first birthday trip together. We had such an amazing time that we were like, “We should do this EVERY year!” So, now we do.

Subsequent birthday getaways included:

  • Road trip to Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC
  • Long weekend in NYC
  • Epic Texas adventure in San Antonio and Austin

This year’s destination is Washington, D.C. A place we’ve both been to many times, both separately and together. But this time is different.

This time, it’s our birthdays, yo.

There ain’t no party like a Wendy-n-Lara party because a Wendy-n-Lara party don’t stop.

Anyway.

I thought it might be fun to share how we actually plan these little getaways. Keep in mind that we’re the weirdos who make a full-on spreadsheet for Cookiepalooza each year. There are definite methods to our madness.

STEP 1: Choose the Destination

Wendy and me at the famed Pineapple Fountain in Charleston, SC, 2012.

Wendy and me at the famed Pineapple Fountain in Charleston, SC, 2012.

The conversation about next year’s destination starts during the current year’s trip. We knew, for instance, that we wanted to do a Savannah/Charleston trip while we were on the plane home from Vegas. In Savannah, we spent a tipsy night making a long list of future birthday destinations. NYC was an easy choice; we had agreed we wouldn’t get on a plane two years in a row to try to cut down on costs.

This year’s destination took a little while to nail down. For about three weeks over the summer, we were certain that we were headed for a cruise somewhere. I’d even found a crazy good deal through U.S. Airways, but missed the deadline for the rock-bottom prize. When it shot up $300, it didn’t seem so appealing anymore. We’d also talked about heading to the Poconos or doing a spa weekend in Hershey – some place really local – but in the end, we decided to head back to D.C.

STEP 2: Take it to Pinterest

Once the destination has been selected, we create a joint Pinterest board to start marking things we want to do, places we want to see, food we want to eat. We didn’t actually start this until our NYC trip; I think I was on Pinterest when we did our road trip to the South but hadn’t really started using it until I was planning my wedding. We also have a board for Future Getaways.

We aim for a mix of quintessential experiences (like horseback riding after a barbecue lunch at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas) and things that just really appeal to us (like spending an afternoon wandering around the foodie haven that is Chelsea Market). The cool thing about going back to a city we’ve been to before is that we’ve done a lot of the quintessential things already. This allows us to focus on a couple of the Smithsonians instead of feeling like we have to do all of them in a long weekend.

Horseback riding in Driftwood, Texas, 2014.

Horseback riding in Driftwood, Texas, 2014.

STEP 3: Make Your Travel Arrangements

If we’re flying somewhere, I book the flight first. And yes, I said “I” – I tend to make a lot of the arrangements for these trips. One, because I’m a bit of a control freak and two, because Wendy is the same way and gets stuck in this role for all of her family vacations, so she enjoys relinquishing the duties to me once a year. We live by a big U.S. Airways hub and I have a U.S. Airways travel rewards credit card, so we typically fly U.S. Airways.

Next comes the hotel (or hotels, if we’re doing multiple destinations). I use Hotwire almost exclusively for travel. In 14 years of using the service, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had bad experiences. We usually stay in 3-5 star hotels for wicked cheap. These are places we likely wouldn’t foot the bill for at full price. Or we’ll opt to save even more money though Hotwire, and get a place like a La Quinta for like $47/night.

I don’t only use Hotwire for the birthday getaways. I used it for Joe’s and my trip to Chicago this summer. I’ve used it to book Girl Scout trips with my old troop. Seriously, if I’m staying in a hotel that’s not related to work travel, odds are I’ve booked it through Hotwire.

Finally, I go after any necessary rental cars. This usually involves me Googling to find coupon codes and/or ongoing sales. Rentals are easy; I’m very short and prefer a compact. These tend to be on the cheaper side.

STEP 4: Find All of the Deals

I love using Groupon when I’m planning vacations, because you can usually find deep discounts on touristy things you’d balk at paying full price for. In San Antonio, we found a crazy good deal on tickets to the Tower of Americas. And for our upcoming trip, Wendy and I are doing a half day at a posh salon for a ridiculously low price (also courtesy of Groupon).

We also stalk deals on Living Social and Goldstar. When we went to NYC, we got half price tickets to see Avenue Q Off-Broadway. This year, we got an excellent price on a nighttime tour of the Washington monuments and half-price entry to the Newseum.

Here’s my favorite tip that won’t help most of you: a lot of cities have Restaurant Weeks in January, to encourage people to eat out. Charleston and New York were two cities that we just happened to visit during such weeks. You can get amazing menus at fancy restaurants for a low prix fixe rate. Like, would I have had a gourmet dinner at Nougatine at Jean-Georges without the Restaurant Week deal? (The answer is no, I probably wouldn’t have.)

Wendy, me, and fellow January birthday girl Jenna at Nougatine, 2013. We were making fun of people who do this pose to hide their waddle or double chin. We are dumb like that.

Wendy, me, and fellow January birthday girl Jenna at Nougatine. We were poking fun of women who do this pose to hide their double chin or age-related wattles. We are silly like that.

Sadly, I found out too late that Washington D.C.’s Restaurant Week starts the day after we head home.

STEP 5: Build Your Itinerary

This is where my control-freak nerdiness comes out. Each year, I build an exhaustive itinerary for our birthday trips. It includes information about our flight and rental car (if applicable), all hotels, and a day-by-day breakdown of what we have planned. For each destination I include addresses, phone numbers, web and email addresses, hours of operation, and any estimated costs. At the end, there is a list of additional places that we might want to see, things we might want to do, and food we might want to eat. This allows for flexibility if one of the choices doesn’t work out or we change our minds.

Just to clarify, I don’t go all Clark Griswold on Wendy. It’s not like I say, “OH MY GOD, it’s 8:45 and we should be at X destination!” It’s more like, “On Thursday, we’re going to the spa for three hours. Here’s where we would like to eat dinner. This is what we’ll do after dinner.” Believe it or not, it can actually be way MORE relaxing to know where you’re getting your next meal than to have limitless options.

This year, Wendy has been more hands-on with the planning part. Today she came over and we sat at my dining room table, laptop to laptop, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Index cards were involved, breaking desired destinations up into neighborhoods to consolidate travel time. Three hours later, we had an almost-full itinerary.

STEP 6: Make Your Reservations

I’m not going to lie: we do a lot of good eating on our birthday trips. It’s a mix of classic locales and Chowhound favorites. In NYC, we hit up Gray’s Papaya and Katz’s Deli in addition to places like Pastis and Big Gay Ice Cream. None of THOSE places required reservations, but a lot of stops on our list do. Today, for instance, we made reservations for Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (dinner on Friday), Dukem (dinner on Saturday), and Farmers Fishers Bakers (Sunday brunch).

If there’s a restaurant that requires reservations way ahead of time, it’s best to make the reservation and then build that day’s activities around it. Confession: at least one of our D.C. days was literally planned around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (I told you, we eat GOOD on these trips!)

STEP 7: Map Out Your Routes

On cities where we don’t plan to drive, like NYC and our upcoming D.C. trip, we’ll also take some time to plan out our public transportation. Like, “We’ll take the red line to this stop and then walk three blocks to our destination.” This doesn’t always work out for us, so we’ll both have backup aps on our phones.

STEP 8: Make Your Packing List

This is more me than Wendy, but I’m someone who needs packing lists to make sure I remember everything I need to bring. This includes things that are easily overlooked, like my mini hair straightener, the adapter I need to charge my camera, and my allergy eye drops. My anxiety over forgetting stuff is far more heightened when I’m getting on a plane, though I’m not entirely sure why. But you better believe I’ll be printing out two copies of my packing list this weekend (because I need one for the return trip home, duh).

And that’s pretty much all there is to it.

I’m thinking I might try to blog our trip while we’re actually on it. This will depend on how tired I am when we get back to the hotel each night. This year’s itinerary isn’t nearly as cracked out as the ones from previous years’, because as I mentioned, we purposely tried to plan something a little more low-key. Next year is the big 4-0; I suppose we’re saving up our money and our strength for the big birthday blow out. We’re thinking Europe. Wendy says she doesn’t care where we go, as long as she gets to use a passport.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a packing list to finish up.

2014: My Year in Review

It’s New Year’s Eve, and like many people, I’ve been in a reflective mood today. So, I thought I would take a few minutes to revisit 2014. Here’s what happened in my world:

Remember the Alamo

January: Fly to Austin, TX for Wendy’s and my annual best friend birthday trip. Drive to San Antonio and spend a few days there before heading back to Austin. Chase the quintessential Texas experience. Hit nearly every area except for Texas Two Stepping and the mechanical bull. Highlights: I don’t even know where to begin! Best girlfriend getaway EVAR.

Lara Loves Alton BrownFebruary: The shortest month is also my most boring month. BUT, we did get to have an early Valentine’s Day with Joe at the Grand Opera House, where we got to see THE Alton Brown and his Edible Inevitable Tour. Slip one of the stage hands a copy of The Sweet Life of Stella Madison for Alton’s daughter. (Yes, I’m that cheesy. Sue me.) Oh, and this was the first time I cooked with the Delicious Dishes.

March: Celebrate 2nd anniversary with Joe at Supper. Launch this blog! And then promptly become World’s Worst Blogger. Drive to Bensalem for a special fan screening of The Veronica Mars movie. Take Joe to see Man of La Mancha at the DuPont and end up in the Best Seats Ever (that no one else would ever want – it’s got a partially obstructed view BUT gives Joe tons of leg room AND there’s no seat directly behind his 6’4″ self so he doesn’t have to scrunch down). Decide to get season tickets for those seats next year – goal achieved!

Funny Seder

These are my cousins, Zach and Josh. They make me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. Here they are riffing on the 10 plagues. No, I’m not kidding.

April: Another Passover seder with the Rosens (my favorite of the Jewish holidays). Then Easter dinner with the Kinna clan. Have the most amazing idea for a novel and start outlining it. A few months later, discover that I have inadvertently come up with almost the exact same plot as the new Jodi Picoult novel, only minus the elephants. It’s okay; around this time I have my first talks with Fab Editor about my next YA novel. Oh, and I get a big promotion at IRA.

May: Off to New Orleans for IRA’s Annual Conference! Get to see some of my favorite people that I don’t cross physical paths with all that often, like Julie D. Ramsay, Jen Scoggin (aka Mrs. Mimi), and my Crazy Reading Ladies, Mary Cotillo and Erin O’Leary. Discover the deliciousness that is chargrilled oysters from Drago’s. Survive my first Mother’s Day without my momma. Trip to NYC to see Heathers: The Musical with Wendy and Jenna. Corn Nuts!

June: Hire a whole new staff at work. Fly to Chicago for Confab Nonprofit and stay for the honeymoon Joe and I never got to take. Eat (and walk) our way across the city. Highlights: Buddy Guy showing up at Buddy Guy’s Legends and doing an impromptu set; spending the better part of a day at the Chicago Institute of Art; dinner at Girl and the Goal (with a Carl Reiner sighting to boot!); getting to hang out with Jaime and John our last night in town.

Us and the Bean

It’s hard to take a selfie when your husband is 14 inches taller than you are.

July: New staff arrives, rounding out the most kick-ass communications team a gal could ever hope for! Get back on a plane, this time to Tampa-adjacent Brandon, FL for IRA’s Council Leadership Academy. Talk to a lot of awesome educators about communications and social media. Later that month, splurge on a new Flexsteel couch, since our cheapie one is falling apart. Definitely worth the investment!

Jen JumpsAugust: Start the month off bouncing at Stratosphere Trampoline Park with Sadie and the McLaughlins (on Jen’s 40th birthday, no less!). Smurf up my hands later that weekend making Tardis blue velvet cupcakes for William’s birthday party. Start going on double dates with other couples. (Why didn’t we do this sooner?) Get an official offer on the YA novel I’ve been working on for HarperCollins. Woot!

September: Relaxing, post-Labor Day beach vacay with Joe in Ocean City, MD. Our hotel has an ice rink in the middle of it but Joe’s feet are too big for the rental skates. Doesn’t matter. Spend hours bobbing in the warm ocean, reading on the sand, and checking out new restaurants. Have my first Fractured Prune donut (amazing) and more chargrilled oysters (unremarkable). Make out with my husband all over town. Magical.

Wendy, Wylie, and MeOctober: Head to NYC with Wen to see Lips Together, Teeth Apart (a week before the rest of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants attend to support their good pal America Ferrara). Dinner = the supremely decadent tasting menu at the soon-to-be-closed WD50. Foodgasms abound! Also: pay off Joe’s student loans (yay!).

November: Hello, NaBloPoMo! Commit to writing one blog post a day for 30 days; miss the goal after accidentally skipping 11/29. Spend a lot of time thinking about/writing about Mom as the Year of Firsts draws to a close. Celebrate Sadie’s birthday by feeding monkeys and a bear at the Pocono Snake and Animal Farm. Spend Thanksgiving with the Royers and Mannons at Brenda and Brett’s. Spend Black Friday with the Rosens playing several heated rounds of Celebrity. Love ALL of my family.

December: Cookiepalooza 2014 = HUGE success. Discovered the gloriousness that is Oreo “coal.” Christmas Eve with the Kinna clan, Christmas dinner with Mark and Charlotte, post-Christmas weekend with the Rosens, Sadiepants, and close friends (Taco Game Night FTW!).

Ending the year in our favorite fashion: at home, in our PJs, watching movies and scarfing up Velveeta bean dip (1 lb. Velveeta cubed, 1 can Hormel Hot Chili No Beans, 1 can kidney beans – zap in microwave until it’s all melted. Sounds gross, tastes delish – trust me on this). We’ll stay up way too late, cuddle down around 3 a.m., and sleep in until noon like we’re people of leisure. It’s glorious, is what it is. (Trust me on this, too.)

Happy New Year, everyone!

My complicated relationship with Thanksgiving.

Beautiful Bird

Look at that beautiful bird! Wendy’s handiwork, Thanksgiving 2010.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I love in theory and dislike in practice. It’s not because I’m not thankful – I am, for so many, many things – but honestly? When you come from a small family, Thanksgiving is more about the food than anything else. And it’s kind of a pain in the arse.

Here is a snapshot of my family:

I am an only child.

My mother had one brother that she didn’t get along with 50% of the time. He’s lived in California all of my life. He had two daughters with his first wife, my cousins Lisa and Caroline. I’ve met Lisa exactly twice in my life. Caroline I’ve hung out with three times, but to be fair, we keep in touch on Facebook and sometimes via texting. My uncle Dick had two kids with his second wife, my cousins Chelsea and Jordan. I’ve met Chelsea once, when she was barely out of toddlerhood; I’ve never even met Jordan. Ever. We’re also friends on Facebook.

My mom’s dad died when I was seven. Her mom, my nana, passed when I was a sophomore in college. They lived in Boston and I saw them a couple times a year if I was lucky. My nana kind of hated me because she thought I looked too much like my father. Well, everyone says she didn’t hate me, but she sure acted like she did. I am still wounded from the times that I would answer the phone with a cheerful, “Hi, Nana!” and she’d snarl, “Put your mother on.”

We spent one Thanksgiving in Rancho Mirage with my uncle, his then-wife Suzanne, Chelsea, and my nana. It was a very strange trip in that I was 12 and had my period for only the third time in my life. My mom got angry with me on the plane because I hadn’t mastered how to use a tampon yet and it was a really long flight. When we got to my uncle’s house, his big dog – I don’t remember what kind, but to 12-year-old me, it was ENORMOUS – tried to…um…have his way with me. It was beyond traumatizing.

My cousin Chelsea, the one and only time I met her. This was Thanksgiving 1988, I believe.

My cousin Chelsea, the one and only time I met her. This was Thanksgiving 1988, I believe.

My father has one sister; that’s my aunt Barbara. We’ve always been close and she’s been like a mother to me since college. She and my uncle Jeffrey have two boys, my cousins Zach and Josh, and they’re like brothers I don’t get to hang out with all that often. Funny thing: Zach has worked in Delaware for years and now actually lives here, but I still pretty much ONLY see him when Joe and I drive to Fort Washington for Shabbat dinners.

I actually lived with these guys for the eight months after I fled Fort Wayne but before I left for grad school. And when I moved home after I got my MFA, and the boys were still in school, I used to drive up for Shabbat dinners/Family Game Night almost every Friday. Then Zach spent a semester in Israel, and Josh was working the bar- and bat mitzvah circuit, and that kind of stopped.

I don't have any Thanksgiving pictures of these guys handy, so here's one from a trip they took to the beach a few years ago.

I don’t have any Thanksgiving pictures of these guys handy, so here’s one from a trip they took to the beach a few years ago.

I still miss those dinners.

My aunt’s mom passed when she was 13. My grandpop remarried, and that’s the only grandmother I knew on that side of the famlily. Grandpop died just a few days before my 17th birthday; his funeral was actually ON my birthday. Grandmom died in February 2006.

When I was little, Thanksgiving was spent at Gram and Grandpop’s house. After Grandpop passed and Gram moved to Virginia, to live with her sister, my aunt took up the mantle. Sometimes her in-laws would come down. I still dream about my uncle’s mom’s chestnut stuffing. It had a pinkish hue but was OMG good.

Delicious stuffing aside, I spent most Thanksgivings kind of bored. The men watched football. Zach is almost nine full years younger than I am, and Josh three years his junior; they tended to play video games. I was the only one in my generation and most of the time I was considered too young to help out in the kitchen. I read a lot to keep myself occupied.

I longed for a big family gathering, one filled with touch football games and annual traditions. But when you come from a small family, this isn’t the norm.

When I stopped speaking to my father – this was back in grad school – I lost Thanksgivings with my Fort Washington family. I thought maybe we could trade off years, but my aunt felt strongly that no one should be alone on a holiday. We started a new tradition of dinners together the following day, for post-Thanksgiving Shabbat.

So then I started having Thanksgivings with my mom and stepfather. Literally, just the three of us. My mom and I would prepare these enormous menus that would result in about four times as many leftovers as we ate on the actual day. She’d stress herself out – holidays were almost ALWAYS stressful for Mom – and there was some other general unpleasantness. Like I said: no love lost between me and Thanksgiving.

I spent one Thanksgiving with Joe’s family before his grandfather passed away. It was a big, noisy affair with aunts, uncles, and cousins streaming in at different times. Their tradition was to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation after dinner. They shouted out lines with each other. It was nice. We’d planned on making this our new tradition.

The Royer clan, Thanksgiving 2008.

The Royer clan, Thanksgiving 2008.

But Pop passed in spring 2009, and Grammy didn’t host the following year. We had Thanksgiving with my mom and stepfather instead.

My mom, on the last Thanksgiving we ever spent together.

My mom, on the last Thanksgiving we ever spent together.

The year after that, my parents went to West Virginia for Thanksgiving, and we were displaced. This is the year that my best friend Wendy insisted that Joe and I come to Thanksgiving at her house. I felt odd, like I’d be invading her family gathering. Nonsense, she told me. I insisted on making stuff, because that is what I do. So I brought a pot of my mom’s pumpkin and sausage soup, a batch of her cornbread dressing, a kale gratin, and a goopy cranberry pie with botched homemade crust that we affectionately dubbed “Frankenpie.” I made Ina Garten’s gravy, which is so good that Wendy eats the leftovers like it’s actually a soup, at her house, just before turkey was served.

Frankenpie, Thanksgiving 2010. I still haven't mastered homemade crust. I probably never will.

Frankenpie, Thanksgiving 2010. I still haven’t mastered homemade crust. I probably never will.

Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving with Wendy and her family: it is, typically, a drama-free affair. Everyone is generally pleasant and no one argues. There’s a lot of laughing. We all help out in the kitchen. Wendy’s husband, dad, and uncle watch football in the basement. Joe watches YouTube videos with Wendy’s kids. I catch up with her brother’s girlfriend Jenna, whom I adore. We all eat too much pie. Wendy sends everyone home with leftovers.

It’s really, really nice, is what it is.

And that’s what Joe and I have done for the past four Thanksgivings. And I actually started to look forward to the holiday again, if you can believe it.

So when I told Wendy that this year we wouldn’t be coming – that Joe’s aunt Brenda was hosting a big family Thanksgiving and had invited us to go – I felt really sad. It’s not that I don’t like Joe’s family, because I do. And I love his aunt Brenda, who’s this totally ballsy badass who says whatever comes to her mind and doesn’t censor a single thought. Plus, we don’t get to see Grammy and Joe’s brother Archie enough – or see ANY of his family enough, really.

But. You know.

Going to Wendy’s for Thanksgiving had become OUR tradition. Joe’s and mine. Her kids start asking about the pumpkin soup weeks before. Hell, they thought I was bringing it to Easter dinner. If it were up to them, they’d have pumpkin soup at every holiday (kind of like how my cousins would prefer to have my aunt’s matzo ball soup at every holiday).

When Joe got aunt Brenda’s invitation, he started dancing around our living room like a little kid. He is SO excited to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and that excitement is infectious. Plus, we got off easy this year; I’m making a double batch of my mom’s soup this morning and we made our semi-famous Sour Cream Apple Pie yesterday afternoon. That’s it. No stuffing, no gravy, no kale gratin.

Tomorrow, we’ll go to aunt Barbara’s and have a lovely second Thanksgiving with my second family, and then Thanksgiving will be officially over until 2015. I’m more than okay with that.

Besides, I have to start planning this year’s Christmas dinner. I’m hosting my stepfather and his neighbor Charlotte, who was one of my mom’s best friends. I’m looking forward to it. Christmas was always my mom’s holiday, after all.

Let me end on a positive note: I honestly have so much to be thankful for this year. More than I ever thought possible. And if Joe’s and my biggest issue on Thanksgiving is figuring out which of our many loved ones to spend it with, then we don’t have any real issues at all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

My standing Friday-night date.

Wen and Me at the Crayola FactoryOne of the reasons I became a Girl Scout co-leader was because of Wendy, my BFF and lifelong Girl Scout. She was starting a Daisy troop, and I was looking for a volunteer opportunity. The idea of having a weekly night where I could hang out with her was appealing. You know, because once you become an adult, weekly face-time with your friends is no longer guaranteed. (Well, technically in this day and age you may be able to secure weekly FaceTime, but it’s not the same thing.)

So when I stepped down from the troop after three years, to start writing books again, we were left wondering how we were going to log that regular time. Wendy, who’d wanted to get back into crafting more regularly, proposed a standing Friday-night scrapbooking date. At first, I was like, “Really? EVERY Friday?” Because Fridays were always kind of my bum day – the kind that called for pajamas, Grotto’s pizza, and camping out on the couch to power-watch all of the things that had been building up on the DVR throughout the week.

But I (begrudgingly) agreed to give a go.

Now, 18 months later, I find myself really disappointed on the Friday nights we don’t get together. In fact, when one of us has something else going on (like when Joe and I drive up to Fort Washington to have Shabbat dinner with my family), we’ll often reschedule the Friday for a Saturday.

We have these scrapbooking dates at my house, because I turned the second bedroom into a Tiffany blue office-slash-craft room (really a craft room-slash-office). This was a process in and of itself (another post for another day), but suffice it to say that Wendy was instrumental in whipping the space into shape. This is why she has her own dedicated table and drawer unit. She leaves her work in progress here for the next time we get together.

Wendy scrapbooking

Currently, we’re working on our scrapbooks for our last birthday getaway, which was to Texas. We have something like 400 photos (the one downside to digital photography), so I’m finding the process completely overwhelming.

Working on the Texas Album

The last album I did was a gift – a scrapbook of Sadie’s first trip to Disney World. It took me, like, over a year to complete.

Clearly, I’m not spending nearly enough time scrapbooking. Like right now.

If you’ll excuse me, my “date” is waiting.