Sunday, April 21, 2013

And Then There Was the Time . . .

I scared the stuffing out of a family from Sierra Leone. 

**Here's a quick primer for those of you unfamiliar with Mormons and their wacky ways. We don't go to church wherever we feel like. We are divided geographically into boundaries called "wards." If the area we live in has too few members to make a full-fledged ward (being an all-volunteer church), we are put into "branches." For a lot of Mormons, the ward/branch is pretty much the foundation, focus, and source of almost all our social life. Oh, and we call each other "brother" and "sister." But we're not Quakers.**

When we moved to our fair town, we knew we'd be moving into a branch, not a ward. At first, it was really difficult for me to be okay with this. Call me a snob. Call me lazy. Call me maybe. But I was not thrilled to be in a unit that I saw as so needy. (Not talking $ here. Talking leadership, experience, etc.) I kicked against the pricks until one night, the Relief Society president and I went to visit a sister who'd recently had a baby. I didn't know the sister at all, except that she and her family were refugees from Sierra Leone, and that her laugh was loud and infectious and wonderful.

When we got there, Sister C's first reaction was to burst into tears. I was so confused. Is she embarrassed because she's . . . in her sweats?? She started to thank us for coming and I realized, she's crying because she's happy! Happy that plain ol' Emily and friend came to visit. It was like a light bulb went on. OMGosh, she's as lonely as I am! We talked about her boys, about her job, and a little about her life during the civil war in her country. She showed us the huge barrels she fills with hand-me-down clothes and non-perishable food and then periodically sends to her village, paying the shipping fees from their family's limited funds. We had a wonderful visit. And I vowed to never complain about anything ever again. 

We also learned that her mother had come from Sierra Leone to stay with them for a year to help her with her baby. Then the sister told us that her mom was really her aunt, but her mom had been killed in the war. And this was her aunt's/mom's first time flying on an airplane. And her first time living in a home with electricity. And the first time she saw snow, it freaked her out. And she never left the house because it was so cold out. And she spoke no English. And on and on. Wow. For days after, I couldn't stop thinking about how lonely that woman must be. So we called up Sister C and asked if we could come introduce ourselves and . . . welcome her to America???

I didn't know what quite to expect, but I should have known that she would be just an older version of my sister. Happy and laughing and warm. Sister C translated for us from English to the pidgin language they speak. It was fun listening to them because we could understand a lot of the words, just not enough to make sense out of it all.  I tried to think of some way I could help this wonderful lady, but all I could think was, since you're taking care of kids all day, want to have a play date? Then the obstacle of the cold weather came up. (Cold as in, not her usual 90℉.) A-ha! I thought. I knew we had a big, heavy coat at home that had been "given" to us by a good friend. We had plenty of coats and wouldn't miss this one. Perfect.

A week or two later, I was going to be driving near Sister C's home and decided to make the drop. I put the coat in a big bag, tied it with a tie and a big card that read "To Mama T. With love, from her American sisters." I was so proud of myself. I drove to their street, parked a few houses away, then ran up to the steps. I debated if I should just leave the bag, but they live on a busy street and I didn't want someone to steal the coat. To make matters worse, they didn't have a doorbell. No problem! I'll just bang really loudly on the door until someone comes down the stairs! So I bang away, then I hear the dad shouting "Hello? Hello?" I run away and hide behind the neighbor's car. Hmmm. . . he sounds . . . angry. I run to my car, hop in, and drive by slowly to see if they got the bag. I see my friend standing at the doorway, with the most terrified look on her face. And it finally dawns on me:

Maybe it's not such a good idea to ding-dong ditch someone who's a refugee from a war-torn country in Africa. Just maybe!

I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to call the sister and explain it was me. It was supposed to be anonymous! But what if they didn't see the note? What if they thought someone was playing a trick? What if they were mad? It was a Thursday night so I thought I'd see how they acted Sunday at church and explain myself if I had to.

Saturday night, I'm out with a friend. I get a voice mail from Sister C. She thanks me for the visit. She says her mom really appreciated it. Then she mentions that someone left a coat on their doorstep, and that, at first, they were all really scared because . . . 


Oh . . . my . . . stars. I am an idiot.

In the end, the mom was very grateful for the coat.  I fessed up and said it was from me so I could apologize profusely for my cultural insensitivity. 

But a BOMB?!!

So as I've spread seeds of fear throughout the suburbs of New Jersey, I've learned so many things.

1. The only reason I had struggled at first to make friends in my branch was because (dramatic pause) it wasn't full of people exactly like me!

2. If you're lonely or feeling down, go find someone to help. Problem solved.

3. Ding-dong ditching is only fun and socially acceptable, if you've always lived somewhere where you always feel safe, where you know your neighbors, and where there isn't a FREAKING CIVIL WAR raging. 

Life lessons learned.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013




There were never such devoted sisters.

Never had to have a chaperone, no sir.

I'm here to keep my eye on her. . . 

Caring, sharing, 

Every little thing that we are wearing. . . 

. . .Two different faces, but in tight places, we think and we act as one.

Uh huh.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

To Melissa on the Occasion of Her Wedding

Me, Melissa, Anne
The following is the speech I gave at my friend's welcome dinner. I was one of several people asked to speak about the Melissa we knew and loved at different times of her life. I was chosen to speak about our high school days. Hee hee hee. . . 

The Summer before 8th grade, my family moved from Utah to Southern California. I was about to start the most painfully awkward year of school with absolutely no friends. Fortunately for me, because I came from a school where I was in a year ahead in math, I was placed in a special class—a geometry class at the high school—and that is where I made my first friend, Melissa.

I'm supposed to tell you how nerdy we all were. Our junior high subculture only valued stick-straight blond hair and a vacant smile. Melissa, however, had brown, permed hair, glasses, and the friendliest smile I'd ever seen. She and I were a part of a group of friends that all had honors and AP classes together. The male contingency we dubbed the "Pooch Patrol" and they, in turn, called us the "Female Mafia." With a few exceptions, none fo us had boyfriends or dated, though that didn't stop us from stalking Melissa's crush Chris, hanging out at the park near his house, hoping to catch sight of him and not having a clue what we'd do if we did. But we didn't need boys. Even though we spent prom night studying for our AP Physics exam—and it was our sophomore year so it didn't count—we knew how to have fun  Driving to Hollywood, excursions to Ventura for biology projects, youth dances at my church, and an endless amount of movie nights and sleepovers. We had a LOT of fun.

Looking back, I think our high school was just too narrow a place to appreciate an amazing person like Melissa. You were either a jock, a cheerleader (or one of their hanger-ons) a skater, a drama/choir geek, a bando, or a nerd. The Mexicans all hung together, as did the Asians. But Melissa defied any labels anyone ever tried to put on her. With her dad from New York and her mom from Singapore, she wasn't just an "Asian kid." She was on the swim team, but she wasn't just an athlete. She got A's in all her classes, but she wasn't just a "nerd." And as you can see, and those of you who know her now, she has left the confines of Hart High School, and become a cosmopolitan, globe-trotting, world-saving wonder woman (who's also drop-dead gorgeous.)

But I have to say that, when I look at her today, she is no prettier now than she was in 8th grade, with her shining eyes, her beautiful smile, and most importantly, her loving, loyal, and generous heart. Here's to you, Melissa. Wishing you the best in your marriage, with all my love.

September 14, 2013

Awakenings: Part Two

Hello, friends. Thanks for following me, once again, to another blog. I know I've been a fickle blogger. Hopefully I still have a few readers out there. And I promise to reward your loyalty with more consistent posts. 

Okay, so on to . . . Nantucket!

In September of last year, one of my best friends from high school, Melissa, got married to a boy from Nantucket. We'd known about the wedding for ages, and Adam and I tried and tried to figure out a way for us to go. But one thing after another fell through so we decided that he'd stay home with the kids and I'd go by myself. As one couple at the wedding put it when I described the situation, my husband is a saint. 

I've never been to a destination wedding, but now I know how to do it on the cheap. One, find the least expensive travel options you can, and don't be afraid to get creative. My travel plans involved driving to Barnstable, MA, parking for free in a park-and-ride lot, catching a commuter bus to Hyannis to catch the ferry to Nantucket, then take the Nantucket bus to the stop a mile away from my lodging. It. Was. Epic.

Here's me on the shuttle bus, pretty dang proud of myself for catching it. Look, Ma! No kids!

Here's a shot of the harbor in Hyannis. I got there a little early for the ferry so I just wandered around, amazed that I was there. Without kids. 

All joking aside, traveling by myself was incredibly liberating. I called my mom a few times just to say, "I'm driving through New England! By myself!" "I'm walking through a town I've never been to! By myself!" Every time I'd board a new mode of transportation, I'd feel this overwhelming impulse to check and make sure I had everyone and everything. And then it would dawn on me: it's just me and my one bag. No strollers. No diaper bag. No head counting every five minutes. Liberating, folks.

It was also incredibly satisfying to make the trip successfully. All the planning and researching and worrying and then all of a sudden, there I was, doing it. Alone. And it went without a hitch. Well, with only one hitch, which turned out to be a mini-miracle.

When I got to Hyannis, I walked straight to the ferry terminal, picked up my ticket that I'd paid for in advance, slipped it in my back pocket, then went out to explore, trundling my little suitcase all the while. I found a wonderful market with little art "shacks." 

I called Adam to exclaim, once again, "I'm traveling! All alone! I love it!" I saw it was time to get back to the ferry and reached back to my pocket for my ticket. No ticket. I looked around, sure it must have just slipped out. No ticket. I started to panic. I hung up with Adam and started to slowly retrace my steps. It was a windy day, and I started to wonder if it had been blown away. "Please, Father, help me find my ticket," I prayed, over and over. 

The panic really started to grow as I searched closer and closer to the ferry terminal. By the time I reached the docks, I couldn't hold the tears back. I went to the ticket counter and explained that I'd lost my ticket. I'd seen printed on it, "Ticket as good as cash," but I was sure I could convince them to print me another one. Wrong. "But I have to get to the wedding tonight!" I tearfully told the ticket agent. "I can't afford another ticket!" Which, at 37 bucks a pop, was true. He was kind but firm that he couldn't print another one. Then he suggested I speak to his manager, who was already down at the docks where the ferry was about to begin boarding. 

I tried to stop myself from sobbing as I made my way down to the waterfront. In a little booth, a woman sat behind the pexi glass with a smile. As soon as I walked up, she asked if I was Emily Johnson. "How did you know?" She explained that someone at the terminal had found my ticket and turned it in. "It's a good sign," she told me, still smiling. "Someone's watching out for you."

Well, so much for holding back the sobs. I blubbered my thanks and kept on thanking God in my heart for his tender mercy. It might have been a small miracle, but it meant the world to me.

So after that hiccup, the rest of the journey was delightful. The ferry ride to the island was a dazzle of blue water and sunshine. And when I stepped off the boat and walked into Nantucket, I wanted to start singing.  

The bus stop in Nantucket.

On the mile walk to where I was staying.

Cheap travel tip #2: Stay at a Youth Hostel! 

The Nantucket Hostel was originally a rescue station and is on the National Register of Historic Places. A bed in this sweet set up was a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. Plus I got free wi-fi, breakfast, and use of the barbecues  You know, for when your friends want to grill the fish they catch on their chartered fishing trips. The only drawback about hosteling this time around was that I forgot to, um, pack pajamas. Wick awk. 

But who needs modesty when you're steps away from this! 

After a day of traveling by car, bus, ferry, and foot, I took a quick shower, changed into my party clothes, and took a cab to the groom-to-be's house for the welcome dinner. Ho-ly cow. My friend's family sure knows how to throw a party. Erm, the party planner my friend hired sure knows how to throw a party! 

We started with h'ors deurves and champagne (soda for me!) which included sushi and an oyster bar. After some munching and mingling, we moved into the tent for dinner where everyone got an ENTIRE lobster, along with bottomless glasses of wine (water for me!)

Look at how happy we look! As we kept toasting, "To the One Percent!"

Both the bride and groom asked friends and relatives from their different stages of life to give a little speech, as a sort of "getting to know you." It was wonderful. People talked about their childhood, their college experiences, and life as busy professionals. My friend, the bride, gave me the honor of asking me to speak about her high school years. You can read my speech here. I had a wonderful time letting all those glamorous people know what a huge nerd Melissa was back then. And how much I love and admire her. 

After the dinner, I skipped the after party and took a cab back to the hostel. Taking cabs around the island was a small but awesome part of the adventure. Every driver I met was friendly and interesting to talk to. They all had a story and all loved Nantucket. I was quickly coming to understand why. Everywhere I went on the island, I felt like I was in a story book. Picturesque does not even begin to describe the place. Cobblestone roads; quaint, colorful cottages; warm, welcoming inhabitants; and the constant smell of sea and sand. 

The next morning, I walked out to the hostel's private beach. 

Here's a quick video of what I found.

Solitude. Pure, unadulterated peace and quiet and aloneness. Incredible. 

Not long after, my friends, Anne and Kevin (Anne being one of the original high school gang), joined me for a fish fry at the hostel. We ate Anne's first-ever catch. And it was delicious. 

That evening was the wedding and reception. The ceremony took place on Neverfield Bluffs (AKA the groom's backyard.) 

Friends, old and new, looking snazzy before the ceremony.

The pavilion.

I think my favorite was the flapping white flags on top.

Yes, we're from California. But the sun really was shining right in our eyes . . . 
The wedding ceremony was simple, elegant, and beautiful, just like Melissa. My heart was ready to burst as I watched my friend since 8th grade make her vows. And yes, I cried. Van, if you ever read this, you're one lucky guy (as I'm sure you know well.)

As you can imagine, Melissa was busy the whole weekend with the hundreds of guests that had come to wish her well. But I still managed to snag some face time with her. Isn't she gorgeous. She kept thanking me for coming all this way to be there and I kept asking, "Are you kidding? I wouldn't have missed your wedding for the world!"

The other wonderful thing about going to Melissa's wedding was getting to see her twin, and my other dear friend since 8th grade, Melanie. Bonus: their mom, who was my second mom all through high school. 

Don't I have beautiful friends?

After the ceremony, there was yet another lavish dinner followed by a dance with a live band. 

Check out the decorations. Pinners, eat your heart out.

We were seated at the "Persimmon" table. I think she meant "Persmarmy."

The couple's first dance. Color me impressed!

I had another "awakening" moment that night during the dance, though I didn't recognize it for what it was until weeks after. The live band was really good and I'd been getting down with my bad self and my awesome friends Anne and Kevin for a while and I was feeling pretty beat. So I left the dance flo and walked over to the deck to sit in the open air. The band started playing "Don't Stop Believing" and I, naturally, started singing along. A man, who I recognized as the guitarist from the band, went walking past and joked, "Yeah! Sing it!" I saw him hesitate, then he came to sit down next to me. I guessed he wasn't much older than me, and was good-looking, though a little balding. He said hello and we fell easily into conversation. Apparently, the rented amp had gone on the fritz so he'd finally given up playing. We joked about how ridiculous it was to play any Journey song without lead guitar, and then he said his name was Adam. *Adam*  

The whole weekend, I'd introduced myself as one of a pair. My poor, sainted husband was home watching our four children (that always got an exclamation) while I attended my dear friend's wedding. "What do you do?" Oh, I'm just a stay-at-home mom. Triplets. Yes. I know. I'm amazing. That sort of thing, said to someone who just told me they work for an NGO in Ulaan Batuur or someplace. For over 48 hours, I'd had the liberty to be just me. And yet, every time a slow song played, or something incredibly funny happend, I couldn't turn to Adam. I was alone. Just me. 

So here I was, talking with this attractive and talented man. I'm not gonna lie; it felt good.  I felt so alive. I felt so attractive. And then he asked me what had brought me to New Jersey. I don't know if I paused out loud, but I certainly took a moment mentally. "My husband," I replied. "He's a graphic designer and works in the City." To his credit (or maybe the flirting was all in my imagination,) Adam the Guitarist didn't skip a beat. He asked me about my family and my kids and we talked a little longer. He eventually got up to go get a drink and I went back to my table. I felt even more alone. 

Not long after I got home from Nantucket (and told Adam all about Adam the Guitarist), I related the story to my mom and expressed a nagging feeling of guilt over the episode. She was incredulous. "Are you kidding!? Another woman would have had a one night stand and not thought anything about it!" I laughed. How absurd. Cheat? I would never cheat. That's crazy. But it made me think. I could have. Okay, not the whole enchilada, but I could have gone on talking, never mentioning my family. I could have flirted harder. Maybe . . . I don't know. I don't even know how these things happen for Pete's sake! But the thought that I didn't, that I hadn't really been tempted to, was an ah-hah moment for me. During my weekend in Nantucket, I was surrounded by the super-wealthy, super-intelligent, super-successful. But at the end of the day, I missed Adam desperately, let alone my hoard of children. I was happy to be me, and didn't think twice about trying to do or be something unauthentic to that.

So, back to the wedding festivities.

After the dance, we all loaded into the rented vans to go to the after party. We ate even more good food at the bar, danced a little, caught up with Melanie, but then I was more than ready to get to bed. The next morning, there was going to be a farewell brunch, but I wanted to catch the earliest ferry back to the mainland, so I said my goodbyes and went back to the hostel. That morning was slightly chilly. And as we left the harbor and I said goodbye to Nantucket, I felt a little wistful. 

The past few days had been incredible. And yet, standing on the deck of the ferry, I turned away from the island and just let my eyes rest on the blue horizon. Home. I wanted to get home. So badly, I wished I'd gotten plane tickets so I could be there now. The joy I felt when I finally pulled into the drive way, and the kids ran shrieking out the back door, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" Sorry, Nantucket, you just don't compare.

A Little Easter Gif(t)