Category Archives: Grandchildren

The Great Outdoors Lets Us Be Together Alone


Life in the time of the Pandemic:

Mary Vermilion wrote a great blog post about how this time is full of conflicting, but understandable, emotional states. Mourning for the normalcy that is suddenly gone. Gladness that we can find a way. Happy to do my part, but sad that this silent killer is stalking our lives.

But it is also tiring to be so constantly torn between emotional poles.

And that’s when I escape outside. Sometimes, while caring for a young grandson, that means a nice hike in a mostly-deserted park (my wife an I have almost made a sport of trying to plot where the most pleasant walks will be with the least people, and we’ve been pretty good at it). Most often, it means a bicycle ride, which I’ve written about on my bike blog.

It’s odd to be “sheltering in place” but to still have access to the great outdoors. There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, but we’re fairly confident that avoiding proximity to other humans is the main way to foil this mindless killer. So, I wash my hands, and wear a bandana (mostly for others’ protection) on bicycle rides.

Spring has turned Iowa green. On the Mount Mercy campus, pear trees by the library are bursting with flowers. The campus is ahead of my yard—magnolias, lilac, peonies, crab apples and bluebells are ready to bloom and each day act like they may burst. But not quite yet.

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Grass that we planted in mid-March is finally starting to show. Smaller trees have young new leaves, but the big older ones are still not out of their winter slumber.

And I take it all in. It is a wonderful world. Although even in that joyful thought there is sorrow. It’s also a world of COVID-19, crazy presidents, protesters who falsely equate social distancing public health rules with tyranny and civil rights. Presidents and people can be idiots.

But flowers are still there. The sweet, fresh sights of an Iowa spring—may we tune into the small joys of this sorrowful seasons and carry on. I guess I seek the quiet beauty of nature to remind myself of the you, that the universe is wonderful and doesn’t revolve around me, and to keep hope alive.

I suppose it’s another form of privilege to live in a place where there is some space and I can get outdoors. If you live in such a place, please enjoy the beauty of spring with me—at a distance. If you are in a place where proximity won’t allow it, I am sorry for that reality.

May we get, through sane action, to a new reality that will allows us to be together again.

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Filed under Environment, Flowers, Garden, Grandchildren, Weather

How I Hope to Survive the Pandemic


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March 16 rush hour traffic in San Francisco.

I know, I know. Although I’m over 60 years old and have moderately high blood pressure and a persistent old-man cough, so I’m more at risk than you healthy young people, I am not at serious risk.

I’m not over 80, and despite my cough I don’t have an underlying breathing or serious health issue that is likely to complicate the disease should I be unlucky enough to get COVID-19.

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End of walk Sunday. Shadows on the sidwalk.

My chances of surviving are excellent, though not 100 percent. I hope, like I’m sure everyone else does, that I don’t get sick. I pray that if I do, it’ll only be a mild case.

And mostly I don’t want to get the virus because I don’t want to be a vector for it—despite the mostly positive prognosis for me, I don’t want to be part of chain that infects a person whose body cannot fight it off.

So, I think I’ll physically be OK. I am more worried about my mental well being. I gambled a lot by traveling to the San Francisco area—a hot spot for the virus—during the outbreak, and in the short time I’ve been here, things have gotten really odd and scary.

I’ve been walking at some famous places—by the bay, for example. While there were some crowds on Market Street on Sunday, mostly the streets have been much quieter than one would expect. Today, Monday, the mayor announced a ban on any unnecessary travel, and ordered restaurants to switch to strictly takeout or delivery business.

My wife and I went for an afternoon walk today (the mayor specified walking outside is OK) at what would have been rush hour. San Francisco looked like Ely, Iowa, at 10 a.m. on a particularly quiet Thursday. In other words, very quiet.

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Spanish-American War memorial in Union Square, pretty empty on a weekend.

Except grocery stores. My son and I had, earlier in the day, make a quick trip to Safeway. We anticipated crowds and craziness, and the grocery store did not disappoint. I am pleased to say most Californians were being polite—although one woman sprinted through the store, cursing at everyone for not maintaining a 6-foot distance. Lady, we were pressed in the aisles like sardines. We were stiffly formal and careful to not actually touch, and I heard no coughing—but 6 feet was a physical impossibility in the canned goods lane of Safeway.

Actually, I held the shopping bag and let my son, with his son strapped to his chest, do the hunter-gatherer thing in that crowded aisle. I waited in the empty potato section, but even there I was not as isolated as guidelines call for.

On the way home, we noticed that another neighborhood grocery store was limiting customers by having an entrance queue. Not sure if that was effective—by preventing people from crowding in the store, you were having them crowd on the sidewalk.

Well, we do what we can. I washed my hands as soon as I got back to the apartment. And, while waiting in the long line at Safeway, I felt the familiar tickle in my throat. My old man cough, ready to roll.

I’m happy to say I deliberately salivated (try that sometime) and was able to use nature’s cough drop to prevent discomfort to those around me. Success! We exited Safeway with no social embarrassment.

And not all the groceries we planned, either. No flour, for example. We would have bought potatoes if we saw any, but honestly weren’t optimistic about seeing those scarce spuds. In this time of crisis, there may not be potatoes, but there was corned beef. There was no green cabbage, but we got some purple. As the resident Irish person, I am prepared to prepare Tuesday’s official holiday meal, and if there are not potatoes, there will still be corned beef, cabbage, carrots and soda bread (my son is not totally out of flour), so our suffering is pretty muted.

I am not sure my trip, made because it’s my wife’s and my first chance to see a young grandson, was a great idea, but the travel advisories changed daily and the travel ban was not in place when we boarded our plane.

When we get home and self-quarantine, the brave new world of online teaching awaits. The newspaper I advise is done printing for the year. Meetings and events are being reshuffled. All of our lives are being upended. Having to induce salivation in a grocery store line is, on the whole, pretty small potatoes (and metaphoric potatoes are the only ones to be had, at the moment).

I’ll roll with it. It’s a blessing to be around to take part in the struggle. May your struggle in the time of corona virus not be too bad. I hope all of you heed health advice, and don’t fret too much. Most of us will make it through, and more of us if we behave ourselves.

Now, go wash your hands.

UPDATE March 18: There were potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day! Daughter-in-law went to neighborhood store in the morning and found some. A small victory during troubled times.

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St. Patrick’s Day meal, bread by my son, rest cooked by me, including …. POTATOES found at local store that morning by my daughter-in-law.

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Filed under Grandchildren, holidays, Science, Travel

Random Thoughts at a Middle School Concert


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Students exit middle school concert at Linn-Mar High School as a performer on stage stows his tools.

I’ve written before about how important a student newspaper is to a university and to students’ experience in school. I firmly believe that one reason student media are important at colleges is the beyond-classroom experiences students gain.

That general idea applies to other areas of school at other levels.

On Tuesday night, I attended a granddaughter’s orchestra concert at Linn-Marr High School. She’s a student at Excelsior Middle School; it was a fifth- and sixth-grade concert.

The music was, well, not always all that musical. The fifth graders are in their first year of formal school music, learning how to hold their instruments, how to read music, little hands and little bodies sometimes dwarfed by their tools.

What a difference a year makes. The change from fifth to sixth grade is pretty dramatic. When these kids get to high school, they’ll be making beautiful music.

And if the chords and harmonies didn’t always excite the pleasure centers of my brain, still, good for you, kiddos. Even if you’re just starting on your music journey, I’m glad that your school provides you with this opportunity and that you are learning.

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Teacher conducts middle-school orchestra.

And yet, it also makes me a little sad.

After all, Linn-Mar is mostly a suburban school district with a pretty good property tax base. In school terms, it’s a relatively well-off district, and that is reflected in its facilities and programs. Extra-curricular activities aren’t always so well-funded or robust in smaller, rural districts or poorer urban ones.

Even here, in a fairly well-off district that has opportunities for anyone, a family needs to commit resources to provide an instrument if a child wants to be in orchestra. And there is already a haves vs have-nots stratification even at early levels—in my granddaughter’s orchestra program there is an audition-only group. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that most members of that group have relatively affluent parents who have paid for private lessons that help their children achieve a higher level earlier in life.

I don’t want to seem critical of a mom or dad who is driving junior to evening or weekend lessons at a private music academy. Good for them. I just hope public schools work hard to make sure that the kid from a marginal home where private lessons aren’t an option can get opportunities, too.

Anyway, that’s not really what I want to write about. Mostly, I am thrilled that so many families have introduced their children to music. My granddaughter will probably never be a stat, but she plays the cello and sings in chorus in middle school and seems to enjoy both.

As a parent and grandparent and citizen of a country that needs an educated citizenry, I am a huge fan of school arts programs in all forms. Music, drama, dance, chorus—they all celebrate and encourage creativity, give students a bright peer cohort to pal around with and generally brighten what for almost all of us is a difficult time in life.

Sure, almost nobody will play the cello as a career. The point of the activity isn’t just the literal activity, but the depth of the experience it fosters.

Last week, a student and I attended the Iowa College Media Association Convention. It was a good time, a fun event, and the student paper that I advise got some awards.

Which is nice. Nicer still is the reality I see every day, that the existence of a paper has an importance I appreciate; like a middle school orchestra struggling to get the right notes at the right time, writers at the “Mount Mercy Times” are honing their craft.

Play on, kids. And may every Iowa and every American student go to a school that can offer them many creative arts opportunities—to me, the arts are something that every child should have access to.

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My granddaughter’s arm and hand are in this image, as she plays one of the cellos among her fellow cellos.

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Filed under Grandchildren, Journalism, Writing

My 2019 Letter to Santa Claus


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Santa with marketing crew at MMU at Christmas Club Friday this fall semester. Image by Audrey Sheller.

Dear Santa:

How are you, big guy? Good luck on the deliveries this year. You’ll need to wax the sleigh runners even more this year, there is not a lot of snow to land on these days in our area of the world. Of course, snow is only a 50-50 shot for Christmas in this part of Iowa anyway, but global warming is changing those odds.

For me, asking for a lot of stuff for Christmas makes little sense—my life is brimming with things, and I’m at a time in life when, while I do appreciate a special gift, mostly I don’t have lots of objects to desire.

So, I’m going to go the Amy Grant route and make a more grownup Christmas list.

What would I be asking for if I could ask you, as if you were a magic genie, for anything?

Well, world peace, naturally. Humans have a shocking capacity to tear at each other. Our literature is full of monstrosities that we can fear (if you don’t ever catch Dr. Emily on the PBS Monstrum YouTube channel, check it out), but most of the time, the most fearsome monster that humans face is us. I not only would like us to stop killing each other, but not eliminating other species and trashing the only planet in our neighborhood we can inhabit would be nice, too.

Item one, then, is to achieve world peace partly by humans recognizing the value of the world we have and learning to act together to preserve it.

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Volunteer helps to plant a new pollinator garden at Mount Mercy campus in 2019. May there be more of this in 2020.

I would ask for peace at heart, too. For myself, naturally. I do get too stressed at times, and have a natural ability to look at the dark side. When my phone blings with a message tone, I almost always imagine some catastrophe, which the message, thank goodness, almost never is. The imagining is irrational, but that doesn’t make it go away.

Still, I’m blessed, for the most part, with decent mental and physical health. Not everyone I know and love is in a happy zone in their life right now, and I would wish for peace at heart to all my family and friends.

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Digging this chick more and more all the time. If the caucus were tonight, I would be standing in the Amy corner. Not a formal endorsement, I am still playing the field, but I”m feeling more like I’m on Team Amy. Image from Wikimedia Commons, a 2019 picture of her by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ.

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From The Gazette’s web site, the “Impeached” front page.

I have a few more practical items on my list. We have a president who has been impeached, but the Republican Senate is unlikely to convict and the party of Lincoln can’t seem to free itself from the destructive hypnosis that seems to have descended on it.

I want Trump to not only not be re-elected, but to be soundly trounced. Only a thorough thrashing is likely to help renew our poisoned politics. So, Santa, put a landslide defeat for Tangerine Hitler on my list, please.

Right now, I’m liking Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, so if I get to add more results for the voting in 2020 to my Christmas list, it would be great to have the Senate flipped so that incoming President Klobuchar can look forward to fights within her party rather than being constantly blocked by the GOP.

I have a few smaller-scale items on my list, too. I hope to do better as a professor, to find strategies to communicate with and teach my students to the best of my abilities. I know that their success or failure is not primarily due to anything I do—it’s decisions that these young adults make—but to the extent that I can, I want to be a better role model and mentor to students and help them to decide to succeed. Not sure how to write that on the list, but Santa, I think you get the idea. Or at least I hope I am communicating it clearly enough. Help me get through to my students, but most of all, help me to understand what I’m trying to get through.

I am a biker, and right now the bicycling world in Iowa is riven by civil strife: Iowa Ride v RAGBRAI. I’m on team RAGBRAI in that fight, by the way, and I hope that ride can find a way forward. I also think that it needs reforming, and maybe the current crisis will lead RAGBRAI to be better—but I don’t want it done away with.

So, a successful RAGBRAI 2020 is on my Christmas list.

We welcomed a new grandchild in 2019. I won’t wish for another in 2020 (although I would also be thrilled if it happened)—I think my own children should guide those kinds of big life decisions for themselves—but I hope to see and have fun with all of my grandchildren, somehow, in 2020. Some are at a distance, and how and when I will see them isn’t 100 percent clear, so mark it down, big guy. Joe wants more grandpa time.

Have I been good enough for this list? Hard to say. Unlike President Trump, I can think of things in my life I could do better or should apologize for. And, while many items on my list are beyond my control (world peace), others are more aspirations that I can have an impact on.

So maybe that’s the final item on my Christmas list. A sort of version of the Serenity Prayer. If I can’t change it, help me to deal with it, and if it’s in my power to change, help me do the best I can. And may I and more of us flawed mortal creatures act in 2020 to achieve a place on the “nice” list.

Yours,
CRGardenJoe

PS: And let’s let Dr. Emily get us into the holiday spirit:

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Filed under Grandchildren, History, holidays, Mount Mercy, politics

Sounds of Hope During Fall Planting


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Whimsical street signs in Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s a stressful time for your gardener correspondent. Mid-term hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m swimming hard to dig myself out of my work hole.

But what else is new? It’s the rhythm of life for a college professor. And my students would hasten to add that I can reduce my own stress by reducing theirs—fewer assignments would make grading a lot easier.

Anyway, in between grade binging, I took a recent trip to Madison, Wisconsin—a brief fall break getaway to a nearby city I had not visited before. My wife and I went, along with one of our daughters and a young grandson.

The 3-year-old grandson, for the most part, had a blast. The daughter was ready to smother her father in his sleep. My snoring, apparently, is not a restful background sound. Sorry about that.

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View of Madison from observation deck high on the Capitol.

Anyway, now that I’m back, I have found a few minutes for things other than school work. Starting last weekend and continuing this weekend, I’ve been planting bulbs—the usual suspects, some tulips and daffodils and crocus. The young grandchild has been “helping,” and his grandmother even got him his own gloves and trowel today.

Well he used them for a few minutes, then wandered off to the sandbox. Despite a cool, wet day, he removed his boots and socks—because, for unknown reasons, it’s a rule to him that the sandbox is a no-shoe zone.

Anyway, I haven’t gotten all of the bulbs in the ground yet, and may not tomorrow. I’m over halfway done, however. I also have some milkweed seeds to put out. A few of my milkweed were, I’m afraid, completely consumed by hungry caterpillars, killed by the butterfly that I’m trying to aid. I’ll plant more.

Although I never have enough time for it, I always like fall bulb planting. It seems like an investment in future hope, and I need that.

Also, I was watching four grandchildren for a daughter whose babysitter was not available, and tonight after supper, one of those grandchildren volunteered to play a tune on the piano. That piano originally was my mother’s. I owned it for a while, but had to give up piano lessons because I didn’t have time for them. I gave the piano to this granddaughter, who wanted to take lessons.

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Small hands pick out a tune on an old piano. These hands are small I know, but they are hers they aren’t my own and I enjoyed what they did. (Yes, I’m quoting a Jewel song, why not?)

And it was nice to hear the old piano make some music. Again, it’s a connection to the future. The future is uncertain and sometimes a frightening place, so it is good, I think, to have some positive ties to it through music and flowers and Madison.

We’ve talked about taking more grandchildren on short trips next summer, if time and our lives and theirs allow it. Madison isn’t the only place we may go, but based on my our first trip there, it won’t be our last.

Among other things, I am thrilled that the city is committed to having public places publicly accessible. We wandered into the state Capitol and were astounded at how open it was—entering the Iowa Capitol feels like going through airport security by comparison. The zoo in Madison is fine and free. We paid to get into a botanical garden and a children’s museum, but the entry fees were ridiculously low by 2020 standards. And we didn’t have any bad food experiences in Madison; we enjoyed our every meal there.

Well, cool. And again, something from my past that I can also look forward to in the future.

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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Grandchildren, Travel

Celebrating My 61st Birthday


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Aug. 31–Just in time for family birthday party, the Monarch caterpillars have a party, too.

Another year on the globe. Besides mowing the lawn, I’ve also dedicated part of this Labor Day weekend to celebrating my 61st birthday. The actual day was Friday, while a family party was Saturday.

It’s been good. My wife got me a cool GPS bicycle computer and an interesting-looking grammar game. My children got me a copy of the class board game Risk, a hibiscus bush which should have huge, pretty pink flowers next year and a birdhouse for my backyard nature oasis.

Friday featured some breakfast scones that my wife got up and made for me. Lunch was in the school cafeteria at the university where I teach—which does not sound all that special, but I take my lunch most days and consider eating in the cafeteria a special treat. Supper was Thai food at a nearby restaurant we like.

And Saturday’s birthday feast featured the last summer day meal—brats, hot dogs, potato salad, macaroni salad, baked beans—and brownies and ice cream for dessert.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. It was great to have my youngest son, who is headed overseas for a couple of years for a post-doctorate position at a university in China, home for it, and it was great for my other nearby kids to make it.

Thank you, universe, for another year. I’m not much into resolutions, I don’t typically make them at New Years, but I think birthday resolutions make as much sense as any others, so here are some resolutions or goals for my 61st year on this planet:

  • Vote for a Democrat who wins. That way Tangerine Hitler can fade into the trash heap of history. Really, I know, suddenly this happy birthday post got all political—but the Dunce-in-Chief said today that he’s not heard of a Category 5 hurricane before. Someone please check his meds? And vote him out.
  • Re-watch a substantial part of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I started with season three the day after my birthday. I won’t be able to re-watch much more during the semester, but these are annual goals, right? And that show just so often make me smile, even if it is very ’90s.
  • Learn something new. I just downloaded a new language ap, and plan to work a bit on my rudimentary Spanish. I also may try to learn to count in Hungarian—my father’s family were all Hungarian, and I would like to visit that country. Can’t make that visit a goal yet for this year—it probably will be a retirement trip and I’m not there yet—but I can start learning a bit of the language. And I’ve already visited some Spanish-speaking places—it seems like I would not be hurt at all to improve on language skills.
  • Get some kids to like Tessa Violet. To be fair, not all college students go crazy when I start playing my Tessa tunes in the newspaper office—one editor a few years ago learned to love Tessa when she went through a tough breakup and saw herself in “Sorry I’m Not Sorry.” But I’m always a bit surprised so few of the new generation listen to her I like the idea of her.
  • Learn to appreciate some new cuisine. I like many international foods—Thai, Chinese, Ethiopian. But there’s a lot of the globe that, culinarily speaking, I have not explored. I like to try new foods and want to find the next taste. Any suggestions, readers?

Well, that’s it, for now. I may be getting older, but I enjoyed myself this weekend. But I still want to have more fun. Maybe it’s time for the next episode of Buffy.

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Filed under Flowers, Food, Garden, Grandchildren, holidays

What I Will Recall About Norwich


England just fell to the United States in a World Cup women’s semifinal match as I write this. As an American, I’m OK with that.

But women’s soccer aside, it’s easy to love England. It’s a place where it an American can feel at home and in an alien place at the same time. I’m close to wrapping up a three-week visit with my daughter, son-in-law and their three children in Norwich, England. I’m not sure when we’ll see each other again—but soon, I hope.

Anyway, I will remember a lot about Norwich. We were lucky with the weather, but the reserved English people can also be quite warm, too. As my daughter notes, they may not make eye contact at first, but are curious and friendly once a conversation starts.

There were a lot of highlights this visit. Of course, the chance to spend them with family ranks number one. But there was a lot more to this visit, too.

In particular, the food has been wonderful, both that which we’ve eaten at local restaurants or from the neighborhood fish and chips shop, and that which my daughter and son-in-law have prepared.

I also enjoy that we’ve seen many new things—touring Blickling Estate, visiting the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, walking by the lake at Whitlingham Country Park. I rode a rented bicycle 20 miles into pretty English countryside on Marriott’s Way alone, and cycled to a nearby city with my son-in-law.

Norwich is a university town that is not that different in size than Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both cities boast about 132,000 residents, for example. But Norwich seems more compact and is much older, however. The scale of things is all different here—sidewalks and streets here are much narrower than their American counterparts. Sometimes it feels a bit odd to me—sidewalks are so tiny here, and yet so much more used—walking is what many British people do. It’s nothing to stroll half a mile to downtown and to see hundreds of people at a time striding about.

When I rented a rode a bicycle here, I felt both safer and in more in danger than in the U.S. Bicycles are way more common here and used by a much larger percent of people as transportation, not just for recreation. Thus, auto drivers here are not so hostile to riders—bikes are too normal. However, narrower streets also mean way more proximity in traffic. To ride a bicycle on an English street is to be frequently, unnervingly close to both walkers and motor vehicles.

Well, I survived the experience. More than that, I really enjoyed it, all of it.

The reticent politeness of the English—strangers not making eye contact, but happily saying “cheers” if you open a gate for them. The odd assortment of fashion when parents drop off children at an elementary school on what seems to an Iowan to be a cool morning calling for a sweatshirt—some are dressed in business suits, some in winter wear, some in skimpy summer shorts. It feels like the parents were all collected from different climate zones.

Norwich! I’ve only really explored two English cities—London and Norwich. I did not make it to the capital during this visit, but that’s OK.

Norwich has been more than enough this summer. I’m not gone yet, but my departure for Iowa is only a few days away, and I honestly feel like I’m missing you already. Of course, it’s not just the place, it’s family, too. Time with my loved ones is precious and always too short.

The summer of 2019 has been one of diverse adventures—a wonderful trip to California followed by this respite in Norfolk. RAGBRAI is next, followed by “real” life.

Is there a point to this post? If so, I suppose it is to enjoy the journey if you are lucky enough to get the chance to travel. Let your family know that you love them. And never forget to try sticky toffee pudding.

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Filed under Grandchildren, holidays, Travel