Thursday, April 19, 2018

Champagne Friday: A Toast to Our Military Kid

Because April is, among many other things, the Month of the Military Child, tomorrow afternoon our unit will gather to recognize and celebrate our military children. I've spent this week preparing gifts and buying the ice cream for our little party. But even as we don our purple (the chosen color to represent military kids as it is a combination of the colors from each branch of service) and dish out the treats, somehow it still doesn't feel like enough. As I tossed and turned until 2 AM on Wednesday night, I thought about what life has been like for the past 6 years. This doesn't describe every military kid, but it does tell the story of ours.

Sweet boy, since your first day here,
this life is all you've known.
Though we may live far and wide,
we'll make this place your home.

As a baby when you napped,
the jets crossed overhead.
And at night when they played Taps,
we snuggled you in bed.

Your first steps were on a battlefield,
where men laid down their lives.
You squealed with joy as Daddy kneeled,
teetering, tottering, then a nosedive.

You've reached for a stranger's desert boots,
and tried on Daddy's dog tags for size.
You've stopped during Retreat to salute,
as pride welled up in our eyes.

You've moved five times in five years,
said goodbye to everyone you knew.
Acknowledged then faced all your fears,
You're brave even when you feel blue. 

You never signed up for this,
it was something you were born into.
We talk about the friends that we'll miss,
and the new ones we know we'll meet, too.

There's much to be learned from a mil-kid;
our "dandelions", they're considered.
Teaching us to bloom like they did,
resilient and hardy, not withered.

Today we packed up his toys,
his stuffies, games and the books.
We made some notes for his teachers,
took the coats down off of the hooks.

We're checking each box off the list,
taking pictures to help us remember.
Squeezing in the things we've missed,
Wishing we had until September.

On the hard days he still stops to ask,
When can we not move anymore?
When can this be the last?
Can we live in the woods by the shore?

Then I distract him with stories
of generations who came before him.
Soldiers who fought for Old Glory,
a family tree of honorable men.

When it's all said and done he will know,
he will have more than a thought or a clue.
That we are all in this together,
because he has served honorably, too.

To all of our military children, who serve involuntarily in an all-volunteer force, we love you!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Year of Living More With Less: How to Rock Your Yard Sale

Although The Year of Living More With Less is supposed to be all-inclusive; less stuff, less stress, less waste, less negativity, less fat, etc., it has become more focused on the material things we lug around with us from duty station to duty station. That sort of happened last year, too. The Year of Living Better evolved into a quest to cut chemicals from our home and replace them with non-toxic cleaners and essential oils. I never really know how these things will play out when I start in January.

In March, Neal and I decided to have a yard sale before we moved. That's not to say that we have more stuff this time, but that I had more time and energy to prepare for a yard sale this go round. I've said it before, I will say it again: Yay, Kindergarten! Children are amazing creatures but their propensity for keeping every little bread tie and broken toy does not create an environment that is conducive to selling all of your worldly possessions. Ultimately, we told Blue that he would get the money from everything he sold and that's when he finally starting unloading the goods. Unfortunately, he's 5 and has no idea that we only gave him about 1/500th of his actual profit. But he has yet to hold down a job so he's basically still freeloading from us. I think it all evens out in the end.

I made a pretty good chunk of change at my little yard sale last weekend. More than I thought, considering most items were priced at $1.00 or below. I think that directly correlates to how much joyless stuff we had. I had never held a yard sale before so I read about 10 blog posts on Pinterest about how to have really successful yard sales. And then I began. It took about 4 full days of sorting, pricing, arranging and rearranging but Neal and I agreed that it was worth the effort. So, I'm going to share with you what I did. In the Army they call this an AAR - After Action Review. It's not good, it's not's just what went right, what could be improved upon and what you'll do differently next time. AAR sounds a little too much like AARP so I'm going to call mine


1. Let it Go
Look, Elsa, you can't be clinging to that bread maker with your icy grip unless you are actually going to make some bread. And if you aren't going to make some bread, come to terms with the fact that you are someone who wants to make some pumpkin spice bread in a loaf pan in October and buy the sliced stuff at Weis the rest of the year. You can't have any attachment to what you're selling or it's going to affect your entire yard sale. I would refrain from advertising your yard sale with signs that say "come put my junk in your trunk" but that's pretty much how you have to feel about it. If you aren't sure how to do this, read this piece I wrote about sparking joy. No joy = detachment and you're ready to let it go (thanking it for the role it played in your life is optional).
Everything we let go. I no longer feel frozen in stuff. Sorry...I'm done now. I love warm hugs. 

2. The Price is Right 
To be honest, the necessary step of pricing my stuff has kept me from having a yard sale for a long time. It seemed like an impossible task. I have an incredible memory for prices. I know what I paid for my Chi flat iron and the scarf I bought at the airport in Rome and the Edward Hopper print I found at a yard sale. You can't get caught up in what you paid for something. Being detached is especially important in this step because most people suggest pricing yard sale items at 10% of what you paid. Not 10% off of what you paid. 10% OF WHAT YOU PAID. So that entertainment center we paid $2500 for? It absolutely sold for $250. And the bicycle helmet that Blue had to have? The one with Lightning McQueen? We paid $10. It sold for $1. This kind of pricing is key to a successful yard sale because people cannot freaking resist getting something for $1. The founders of The Dollar Tree have known this for years. And if folks can get something for 25 or 50 cents? All the better. They don't need it, but it only costs a quarter. They'll find something to do with it. What they do with it isn't your concern because you're detached, remember? What matters is that you now have their 2 quarters to rub together. And trust me, those quarters and dollar bills add up. Just ask an exotic dancer. You are going to make it rain.

If you are pricing something that was a gift or you can't remember how much you paid for it, ask yourself, If I was at this yard sale, what would I be willing to pay for it? You might be surprised at how quickly you will drop the price from what you think it should be to what you would actually pay. And know that the item's condition will affect how much someone will pay. If it's damaged or broken, 5% of your original cost may be more realistic.

3. Did I Mention Detachment? 
I only come back to this because it's really that important. Let me give you an example. On my 3rd engagement (the one where my ex-fiance couldn't decide if he wanted to marry me but let it get so far down the road that I actually had a bridal shower), I was given a set of beautiful wooden salad bowls. I wanted them, I registered for them. And on that glorious day in August, I got them. But when I moved out of his house, I took the bowls with me. Because, at the time, I didn't have much and they were necessary if I didn't want to sip tomato soup out of my hand. But Neal and I have been married for almost 12 years now and I had only used them once and that was probably 11 years ago. They've been moved all over this country but never made it out of the box. So, I decided to sell them. I broke my 10% rule because I wasn't 100% detached. I priced them at $5. They were beautiful but they weren't $50 to begin with. They sat on the shelf for 3 hours when I finally decided that I was being ridiculous...and worse, attached. I knocked it down to $2. They sold 5 minutes later. At the end of the day, I could have $2 or some bad juju salad bowls in my hand. I think I did the right thing.

4. When the Stickers Don't Stick
One of the best pieces of advice that I gleaned from those bloggers about their own yard sales was how to attach the price to the item. In this Age of Amazon there are about 3374 ways to affix a price sticker to your worldly possessions. All you really need is a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie. Seriously. Those little brightly colored dots will fall off. And they are small which means if your average shopper is like my husband, who forgets his reading glasses half the time, they won't be able to read the price. And if they can't read the price, they aren't going to buy. Masking tape is sticky, durable and doesn't have to be torn with your teeth. Plus, it's comparatively cheap. Make your price big and legible and watch the items fly off the shelves.

5. Everything Gets a Price
The other super helpful piece of information I got from Pinterest was that I needed to price everything. Yes, Vern, I know what you mean....that is a giant pain in the ass. But...necessary. You will have some shoppers who don't mind to ask you what stuff costs but most people will not, especially if you are busy helping other shoppers. Again, if I was at a yard sale where nothing was priced, I wouldn't stick around. It's too much work. And the burden of the work is on the person making the money, not the person spending the money.

6. Groupies
Pricing every single stupid little thing gets tedious. I had these jars from Michael's that were like $1 each. I bought them at Christmas because I was going to make sugar scrubs for each jar and give them as gifts. That was 4 years ago. They've moved twice. They had dust on the inside of the jars. So I put them all in a gallon bag and priced it at 50 cents. They sold by 9 AM. Group it, put it in a bag or wrap masking tape around it a couple of times and call it done. The same is true for books, DVDs, jewelry, shoes, or any like item. I bought an entire set of Jewish children's paperback books at a consignment sale last month just because I wanted the one about gefilte fish.
Drill Sargent Blue keeps the groupies in line.

7. Tables Need Not Apply
We don't have many tables. Make that any. We don't have any tables besides our dining room table. So, having a yard sale where everything was laid out on tables wasn't going to happen. But what we do have is a lot of shelving. It's the kind they sell at Lowe's that you put in your garage to organize your Christmas decorations. We have a ton of that stuff. So, instead of laying it all out on tables, I just laid it out on the shelves. We secured broom handles to the shelving with zip ties and used that to hang clothes. The point is: use what you have. I even used plastic bins and cardboard boxes to display books and DVDs. It helps if stuff isn't stacked on top of each other and if it's a bit cluttered to begin, as soon as people start buying, take a moment to spread it out as the space opens up. But you don't need to rent or buy a bunch of tables to make a yard sale work. Even a door laid across 2 saw horses makes a flat space that is perfect for a yard sale.
Who needs tables? Bust out the shelves!

8. Hang It Up
Clothes sell better when they are hung up. It's easier to slide a hanger across a broom handle than it is to bend over and search through sizes. I understand that unless you are a Lularoe consultant, you probably don't have a clothing rack laying around, but improvise. Find something that will support the clothes you want to sell and make it work. I tossed clothes with stains and holes in the "free" box - but they were still there at the end of the day...meaning that people don't want that stuff, even when it's free. I also used hangers with clips to pair pajama bottoms with tops and any matching sets. You could separate your clothes by size but I only had Blue's 5T stuff and my size 16 stuff so there wasn't anything to separate.
Prices posted above each group of clothes keep me from having to price every single piece.

9. Make Some Change
I have heard horror stories about someone walking up to a yard sale first thing in the morning and handing the person a $20 for a 25 cent item. I decided that if I prepared for that scenario, everything else would be easy. So I made change for $100. I got $60 in $5s, $30 in $1s and $10 in quarters. I also gathered up the spare dimes and nickels we had in the cars and around the house. This was plenty of change for the entire day.

10. Think Like Target
I arranged my yard sale like a department store. Kitchen items were grouped together, as were toys, clothes, household items, books, rugs and jewelry. I also kept clothing hanging in the garage so the hot sun wouldn't fade them. (Side note: pray for hot sun on your yard sale day. It was rainy and 40 degrees the day after my yard sale. I'm pretty sure that would have affected the bottom line.) 

11. Stock Your Station
I used a patio table and chair as a cashier station. As a frequent yard sale shopper myself, it feels awkward if the person is pacing as you're shopping. I played a little 70's music on my phone, answered questions as needed and hung out in my chair until someone was ready to pay. I also had a notepad, pen, calculator, a ton of plastic bags from the grocery and Target (that I've been saving up for months because I'm generally a resuable bag kind of girl but I knew this day was coming), a little bubble wrap for fragile items, a measuring tape, extra masking tape and a Sharpie and extension cords for testing electronics. I made sure all battery-operated toys were functioning before the sale started.

12. Advertise on Social Media
This works really well if you have lived in an area for a really long time and know half the county. But even being here for just under 2 years, I still pre-sold a lot of big pieces just by posting a photo of my garage on Facebook. You can also post to a local buy/sell/trade page to get more interest.

13. Speaking of Pre-Sales
Get in good with the neighbors by offering a preview night to your neighborhood. I posted to our neighborhood Facebook page that I was opening the door to neighbors on Friday afternoon from 4:30-6:30. And then we went out to dinner with some folks who stopped by! They appreciated the early shopping and I was able to make a little space for the next day. As Blue says, it's a win-win! 

14. Adjust 
My yard sale lasted 6 hours but by the second hour I could see what was working and what wasn't. I was selling a pup tent and a rooftop carrier but they were both in their carrying bags. People weren't unzipping the bags to look. So, I pulled them out and laid them on the grass. I also had a lot of shoppers checking out the La-Z-Boy chair. They were sitting on it, reclining in it, enjoying it immensely. But not paying the $25.00 I priced it at. So, I dropped it to $15. Watch your shoppers to see what they are picking up, what's getting ignored and what needs to be more visible. If something isn't selling, move it or drop the price slightly. It doesn't hurt to try something different.
A well-loved but still fully functional water table gets dropped to $1.

15. Signs, Signs, Everywhere are Signs
So, this was my biggest mistake. I didn't put up enough signs. Mainly I was concerned about annoying my neighbors with my fluorescent posterboard all over the neighborhood, but I needed 2 and maybe 3 more signs to help guide shoppers to the house. I made very clear, concise signs that simply read:
SAT 4/14   7 AM - 1 PM
MY ADDRESS (which was my actual address but this being the internet and all..)
I taped them with packing tape to some wooden stakes I found in the yard sale aisle at Walmart. Walmart sells fancy "yard sale signs" for $4.50 per sign. You don't need that. And I was concerned that putting them up on Friday morning wasn't enough of a heads up, but it was going to rain so I waited. As it turns out, yard sale shoppers really don't need more than 24 hours notice, but they do need some trail markers. I just assumed that everyone out there is using Google Maps or Waze to get around in this world. Don't assume that because it's not true. I was told multiple times on Saturday that people were driving around looking for our house and that they almost gave up when they finally found it. So, I'm sure some did give up. Don't make this mistake. Put enough signs up so that someone can find your house, even without a smart phone.

16. Sticky Fingers
I've been told by my neighbors, who are veterans of the annual neighborhood yard sale that much of the city looks forward to every spring, that some shoppers have sticky fingers. And that things will get stolen. The worst case scenario is your change box (I used a waitress bib from when I was Sookie Stackhouse for Halloween a few years ago), but it isn't uncommon for other, less valuable items to disappear. I only noticed that some of the jewelry was gone, but considering it was 25 cents per piece, if you are stealing the jewelry from my yard sale, you have bigger problems than I do and probably need Jesus. Peace be with you.

17. Send 'Em Away With Something Free
On the advice of several bloggers, I had a free box. This was mostly filled with happy meal toys, Dollar Tree party decor, a box of oven bags that I don't remember buying and some of Blue's pants that had holes in the knees. My Mennonite shoppers grabbed these right up as they know their way around a needle and a thread. It gave the kids something to look through while their parents shopped and several people found something free first but then shopped until they found something to buy.
This bin was still half full at the end of the day, proving that sometimes folks don't even want your free stuff.

18. The Extras That I Skipped
There are people who say you should have snacks on hand or bottled water, or even treats for sale. They also suggest that kids set up a lemonade stand. First of all, unless they are super helpful or entertained by a device, kids underfoot while you are trying to tally and make change is extremely distracting. I lent my husband to the neighbors so they had help hauling off a fence and in exchange, their kids watched Blue. It was a lovely arrangement. Also, while I do feed the people who come to pack our house, I don't feel it is necessary to feed the people who are coming to pay a quarter for a scarf. So, will not find rice krispie treats or lemonade at our yard sale. But Sheetz is right down the street and they make a killer cappuccino.

Not pictured is the giant entertainment center and 2 matching end tables or the washer & dryer we sold.

There are a lot of great blog posts out there about how to host a successful yard sale (sometimes I feel deep pity for our parents who never had Pinterest to turn to) but this lady is pretty great. And she's way more succinct than I am. Someday I'm going to get paid per word and then I'm going to make it rain.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Little Couch That Could

As y'all know, we are chin-deep in getting ready for another move. I started Kon-mari'ing the house in January (with apologies to Marie Kondo for turning her method into a verb, but to say that I'm "decluttering" or "tidying up" really doesn't do justice to what is going on around's significantly more serious than that). And now our garage is plum full of items that sparked no joy when I held them all those months ago.

Except one of the Keurigs and a microwave managed to make it back into the house. To be fair, the movers busted our last Keurig and it was a whole new level of Dante's hell as I waited for the reimbursement check to come in so we could replace it. Also, I'm fairly certain that the CA house doesn't have a microwave (because it's the military and they figure they are giving you a roof, some rooms and a refrigerator, you can figure out the rest).

Also...this couch.
A quick story about this couch. It was our first furniture purchase as an active duty family when we were stationed in Georgia. We already had a beautiful Haverty's leather sectional, with recliners at each end, didn't fit in the base housing. So, we scooted on down to the AAFES furniture store one afternoon and bought something that was comfy, leather and fit perfectly in our shotgun living room.
(Selfie maternity photos. All you need is a tripod, some props and a baby bump.) 
Well, I take that back. It wasn't SUPER comfortable. It sat REALLLLLLLY low to the floor. Like...on the floor. Our knees were never at a 90 degree angle when we were sitting on it and we had to hoist every grandparent (as well as my 9 month pregnant self) off of it when it was time to get up. 

Eventually the too-low couch was excommunicated to the playroom, where it lived until last week. I didn't hold it in my hands but the fact that just looking at it made my knees hurt, told me all I needed to know about how much joy it sparked. Neal hoisted it on his shoulders and hauled it out to the garage, destined to be someone's yard sale bargain. 

As he lowered the couch to set it on the ground, I heard him say, "Huh. Maybe we should put the feet on it if we're going to sell it." 

Wait. What? It has FEET?? As in, it doesn't HAVE to be the world's shortest couch? 

He put the feet on. 

I loved the couch. It was comfortable and one can rise with ease. 

We carried it back into the house, where it will stay until the movers put it on the truck to CA. It has earned a spot in the living room and given us one extra place to sit when company comes to visit. 

I guess the lesson here is if you have your furniture delivered, it's always a good idea to look under it before using it for 8 years. There may be something useful stapled to the bottom. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Breakfast of Champions

I don't know who started it, probably my maternal grandmother considering her insatiable appetite for sweets at any time of the day, but cake & coffee (or chocolate milk in my decaffeinated days) has always been an acceptable breakfast. Pie is a decent substitute but there was always more cake than pie when I was growing up. Whenever our family gathered for a birthday (which seemed to happen about 3 times a year as the birthdays were unintentionally clustered into March, September and October), you could bet that everyone would finish the cake the morning after the party.

I think my husband was justifiably appalled by this when he married into the family, especially considering our family dies from diabetes and cardiovascular disease. You would think we would always have veggie omelettes and turkey bacon, but no...the sweet tooth gene is alive and well (and has been passed down yet again).

It has been awhile since I had cake & coffee for breakfast, but this is a special cake from some truly exceptional folks.

Yesterday afternoon, a group of families from our children's missions group at church gave us a going away party, complete with yummy food (I may have declared to Blue at one point, "THIS is dinner! Eat it or starve later!"), thoughtful gifts and delightful conversation. For 4 hours we gathered, shared a meal and swapped stories about our children, home ownership and how we came to be Moravians. The kids, being hearty Pennsylvanian stock (our own son could now pass for a native) played outside, although the wind chill had to be below freezing. And the littlest of our crew toddled around our feet or sat in laps while we chatted.

It was the warmest I've felt since the last days of summer.

When Neal was assigned to a National Guard post with no on-post housing and very few active duty families nearby, I...well...I had what my friend, Carrie, calls a complete come-apart. I came unglued, unhinged, consumed by the idea that I wasn't going to make any friends because we were going into a place where everyone had known each other for a hundred years and one new, transient face was never going to break through the ice.

And for about 6 months, I wasn't wrong.

But it had everything to do with my attitude.

I assumed these people would have no interest in me, so I had no interest in them. Consequently, they had no interest in me. But I was lonely and Blue was, too. We had gone from being completely immersed in Army life and engaging daily (sometimes multiple times a day) with our neighbors and friends as we passed each other on the street or chatted at the playground or met for coffee after our morning workout to a civilian suburban life where we would see 1 or 2 kids on bikes after school and a parent or 2 checking the mail before closing the garage door behind them.  In Kansas, we lived in barracks that had been renovated into spacious apartments so, we were, literally, on top of each other. We sometimes disagreed and there was occasional drama, but we had become a tribe, more than that...a family. We all cried when it was time to leave. We had become completely enmeshed in each other's lives.

And then we Korea, Texas, Louisiana, Germany, Florida and Pennsylvania. It was devastating and I wanted to quit all of this. It was too hard, too emotionally draining. I can deal with finding a new dentist, new doctor, new school, new everything every 24 months. But finding new friends was too much to ask. I almost asked Neal if we could just be done.

But if I had, we would have never found our Pennsylvania family. And I can't imagine my life without these people in it. Not just our church family, but our neighbors and friends we've met along the way. I think about the night of my birthday last year when we gathered with neighbors in the backyard for a potluck dinner and to watch Captain Underpants (I let Blue pick my birthday movie. I'll know better for next year.) on the big screen. And driving a carload of kids to the Farm Show every January to see the chicks hatch in front of our eyes and the just-born calves struggle to their feet for the first time. And to drink our weight in PA Dairy Association milkshakes. And the epic pre-trick-or-treating party our neighbors throw every Halloween night. Last year they had 3 tables full of food and inflatable party decorations.

And I think about all of the mission work we've been able to participate in through the children's missions program at the church: decorating pumpkins and passing out valentines at the nursing home, crafting gifts for the Father's Day worship service, gathering and packing supplies to send to Soldiers deployed overseas, preparing the Lenten meal for a Wednesday night service. These children are learning from their parents and their church how to serve others and I feel lucky and blessed that we've been a part of that. What if I had given up after Kansas? Look at all we would have missed.
Palm Sunday. We had obviously temporarily lost our minds when we sat down with all of the kids between us. I mean...what could go wrong? 

This is just a few from the hoards of photos I have from the past 2 years...favorite teachers, city parades (PA loves a good parade), church services on the front lawn, trick-or-treating in the neighborhood and a little of what makes our church unique. And not a single person in these photos is in the military. They were just living their lives, going to church and soccer games and swim lessons. And then we showed up. Strangers. Gypsies. Temporary. They loved us anyway. 

They knew we couldn't stay. They loved us anyway.

They knew the goodbyes would be hard. They loved us anyway.

They didn't know our story, where we came from, what kind of friends we would be. They loved us anyway. 

They knew nothing about military families or what our lives are like. They loved us anyway. 

They don't know if we'll ever be back. (We will.) They loved us anyway. 

Whenever I meet a new military spouse, I tell him/her, "You will get out of it exactly what you put into it." That's true for most things in life. But taking the time to engage with your community and its culture can seem like an unnecessary burden when you are always the new family. What's the point? And it's easy to assume that they are thinking the same thing. But what if they aren't? What if you enrich each other's lives; you help them to understand the sacrifices that a military family makes and they help you to understand what makes their community so vibrant and distinct? What if you are looking for a church and end up finding a family? It is often said that it takes a village and we must not be afraid to ask our neighbors and our friends to be our village when we have moved so far from family. Every military spouse knows that finding your tribe when you live on post or on base happens fairly easily and quickly. But finding them in a civilian setting feels overwhelming and pointless. I'm here to tell you it can happen and that it's worth trying. 

And to everyone who has taken us in, shared a meal with us, come over for a chat or welcomed us into their circle, thank you. Thank you for loving us anyway. It is, by far, the best way to support military families. And it makes us want to continue doing what we're doing. Even though we have to say good-bye, we are grateful for every memory and the chance that when we meet again, it is as friends instead of strangers. Until next time....

Monday, April 2, 2018

Lucky 13 and the Last Surviving CD

How did you and Neal meet?

It's hard to answer that without sounding like a total nutcase. Um...a coworker gave me a photo of him, deployed to Iraq, in which I could only see how straight and white his teeth were and, based on that, we began a string of emails that resulted in him inviting me to spend his R&R with him in London, England? Yeah...that sounds like a completely lucid answer from a responsible adult.
The picture that started it all. 
My first email to Neal began with me thanking him profusely for being brave enough to go to war and briefly mentioned my love for Jimmy Buffett and peel-and-eat shrimp and I may have quoted a little Rupert Holmes, just for funsies. For some unknown reason, he decided to reply to that. 
Blue and I are so glad he did. 

We emailed from October until the end of November when, out of nowhere, Neal invited me on his week-long R&R to London in April. I don't remember much about the rest of that day, but I do vaguely recall stumbling into my co-worker's office (the one who started the whole thing) and declaring, "YOUR BOY JUST INVITED ME TO SPEND A WEEK WITH HIM IN ENGLAND!" 

At that point, I decided I should move out of my ex-fiance's house. 

So, I did what any good almost-but-not-quite-daughter-in-law would do: I made Thanksgiving dinner for my almost-but-not-quite-in-laws and as soon as they pulled out of the driveway, I started packing boxes. I was completely moved out a couple of days later. And I never looked back. I walked away from one man who never could quite decide if he wanted to marry me and toward one who wanted to fly me halfway across the world just so we could meet. 

But first, the Soldier had no clothes. No civilian clothes, that is. He asked, in probably the most casual way possible, if I could swing by his house where his mom was living and pack him a bag. Well, sure. I's the least I could do for someone who had just bought me a plane ticket to England. And so, on one uncharacteristically warm day in March, I rang the doorbell and met his mom. 

And then I packed his underwear. 

You really get to know a person when you pack his underwear....while his mom looks on. 

I grabbed an array of jeans and sweaters, as it had not quite warmed up in the U.K. yet, either. And then, on the advice of my sister (who lived for several years in Scotland when her daughters were infants), I packed his Adidas soccer shoes - because apparently the only people who walk around in running shoes are Americans. Europeans and the English wear their Nikes to the gym and their "trainers" everywhere else. Neal's soccer shoes looked like "trainers" to me. So, I threw them in the bag, gave the mom the most normal hug I could muster after a fairly awkward introduction and headed home to pack my own bags. 

The U.S. Customs agents find it very hard to believe that someone would fly around the world to meet someone for the first time and bring his luggage to him. Just a heads up in case you want to try this at home. You will need a better story than "I have been emailing this guy at war and he wants to meet so we're going to London and those are a week's worth of henleys plus some soccer shoes that we are going to pass off as trainers."  Had I been anyone but a white girl in my 20's with pole-swinger hair, I'm sure I would have been detained. 

But I wasn't and on April 1st (April Fool's - which caused unnecessary concern for my mother) I stepped up to the baggage carousel in the Heathrow Airport and hugged my future husband. We collected our bags, hailed a taxi and took our first picture together; a selfie, proving that even in 2005 we were cutting edge, even if we hide it extremely well. 
He brought me back to our room at The Waldorf, which was quite a change of scenery for this Hampton Inn girl. Coupled with the fact that I mistook his Pathfinder for an Infinity in a picture he had sent over Christmas, I came to believe that the Army was a lucrative career choice. And that maybe I was just a little bit out of my league. But what was the harm in seeing a wee bit of the Mother Land before heading back? (As it turns out, he had a lot of Hilton points and The Waldorf is owned by Hilton. And when he had used as many consecutive points as he could there, we moved across town to the Hilton Hyde Park for the rest of the time. So, no...the Army is not the way to make your millions.)

On the first day, we slept. A lot. We slept in the same bed, but only because they had given us a room with 2 twin beds anchored to the same headboard.
Had I not already been well-versed in the way it is across the pond, I would have thought he was gearing up for some shady shiz, but I knew this wasn't an uncommon practice since the hotel rooms are so small. That's not to say he was disappointed by this development but even to this day, he will not admit to anything other than honorable intentions. I think he might be a little bit scared of my mom.
We did make it out to hear the Choral Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral that evening.

And then Mom called...presumably to make sure I wasn't on the run from a rapist or a serial killer. Neal left the room so I could talk to Mom in private and I assured her that there were 2 beds and he had opened every door for me. If he was going to tie me up and kill me, it hadn't happened yet and maybe I would at least get to see London first.

The next 7 days flew by in a blur of laughter, stories and more than a little bit of wine. We learned you can uncork a bottle of red using only a hotel teaspoon and if you get drunk and miss the party bus that you booked a month in advance, perhaps it was meant to be.
Drunken debauchery after we missed the party bus. We were there 2 hours early. I don't know what happened. 
Corkscrews are for less resourceful folk. 
But we also stayed busy sightseeing in a city that invited us to explore. 
The gardens of Windsor are breathtaking. Although the public bathrooms are in a tractor trailer. I have a hard time picturing the Queen Mum squatting in one of these.

Paddleboating in Hyde Park on a day when it had threatened to either rain, snow, or both all day. We threw caution to the wind, handed over our money and huddled to stay warm. 
Second row seats at The Producers, in London's theater district. 

A 3-hour drive to Stonehenge, followed by a stop in Bath (where I bought fancy soap and got unexpectedly licked).

First row seats to The Lion King and another chance to practice our selfie game. 

A walking tour where we learned about the bubonic plague  and all the dead people under our feet, as well as the St. Bride Institute, which is the inspiration behind the first wedding cake design. 
Watching The Ring 2 at a swank movie theater in the Notting Hill neighborhood. We almost didn't find the place, but when we did, we were rewarded with a fully stocked bar in the back and reclining chairs. Copious amounts of alcohol is the only way I survived that movie. 

 And we found Madame Tussaud's because...well...why the hell not? 
A nighttime pub crawl and a chance to hear all about Jack the Ripper. 
A daytime pub crawl and a chance to rest our feet...because I was the only one wearing nonsensible shoes. (As Neal unpacked his bags, he looked up and asked, "Why on earth did you bring my indoor soccer shoes?" He wore his Nikes all week and I suffered in Skechers.)

We strolled through gardens (and I rocked a Kangol hat like impersonating Samuel L. Jackson was my job)...

rode the Underground everywhere,
ate a lot of pub food (except for this one time when Neal wanted to introduce me to Indian food and I drank an entire pitcher of water with my 1-star curry),

and walked a lot, at different times of the day, so we could really experience the city.

On our last evening together, we took a dinner cruise down the Thames River while reviewing the list of things we wanted to know more about from each other.

But I already knew everything I needed to know. After 7 straight days with someone, it's either going to work out or it's not.
This was going to work. I just had to survive saying goodbye at the airport.

The night before we headed our separate ways, Neal handed me a mix CD. It included all of the  background music from our week in London; "Neal's favorites" that he played on his laptop whenever we were in the hotel room. Kylie Minogue, Luther Vandross, Rascal Flatts, George Michael and, of course, a little Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I brought it home and those songs sustained me until August, when Neal returned home from Iraq. The music he chose reminded me of our first kiss, of our first night together, of falling in love; hard and fast and, hopefully, forever.

I found that CD last week while I was Konmari'ing the entertainment center. It was buried in a CD case that I had shoved to the back of a cabinet. I took it out, swiped it across my sweatshirt and stuck it in my car CD player. The first notes of Fall Into Me by Emerson Drive lifted me up and dropped me right back in The Waldorf Hotel. It was like falling in love all over again. I kept that CD. I got rid of 47 others, but I kept that one. And it lives in my car. It is the last surviving CD and I hope I always have a way to play it.

It has been 13 years, almost to this very moment, that I first laid down on the twin bed next to the man of my dreams. It's hard to beat a week-long first date, but he manages to make each year better than the last. I am, as Alison Krauss sings on my CD, The Lucky One.