Thursday, June 30, 2011


 P1130025 Once the party was picked up and everything put away, it was time to focus on the fact that Penny was really and truly leaving.  We had all had moments in the past weeks where we were all getting pretty teary eyed—once we were standing in line somewhere and I just patted Penny’s back.  She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was holding onto her while I still could.  We both got a little weepy. 

P1130026 So Sunday, we spent as much time together as was absolutely possible.  We played last games of “I’m going to get that baby!”, a game Penny and I had invented for Leah where one of us held her and the other chased the two of them in circles around the living room/dining room/kitchen while Leah shrieked and laughed.  We did last minute packing, or so I thought.  I wound up having to take my buddy Joe home early, since he got a migraine, and when I got back, we had a nice dinner out and then watched The Princess Bride, all four of us.

P1130024 Monday morning, Penny was freaking out because she couldn’t fit everything in her bags.  She had flatly refused to spend money to ship anything whatsoever, and she had also spent months building up a supply of junk food to take home with her.  Half of one suitcase was filled with cookies, candy, crackers, nuts, etc.  Finally she came to the conclusion that she couldn't fit it all, so she abandoned a box of Ritz crackers, her Pringles (about 600 chips by the looks of it, all tucked in a Ziploc bag—they would have been crumbs by the time they got to Thailand), and her Chips Ahoy cookies (also in a Ziploc bag, about 200 of them). 

Finally, she asked me for help getting things put in her suitcases, and I made her make some tough choices.  Her favorite sneakers that had holes in the bottom went, as did 2 other pairs of shoes.  Scarf and gloves that she has no use for in Thailand are gone.  Sweaters and blankets are no more.  There was some crying over the scarf (“But my friend gave me that!”), but I pointed out that she had another scarf in her suitcase that I hadn’t made her get rid of, and so she had to choose between the two.  All the DVDs were removed from big cases and put into a sleeve.  She had to abandon her iCarly DSi game boxes.  What with one thing and another, we finally got everything put together.  She did leave behind things that I would have found more important than Pepperidge Farm cookies—the autographed book from Paul Burrell, cards that friends and family had given her.  She asked what I was going to do with her room when she was gone and I said it would go back to being a guest room, but I wasn’t keeping things indefinitely and it was not turning into a Penny Museum. 

P1130051 Then I made her take her bags to the car, just like she would have to in the airport, although this time through the obstacle of toys in the backyard.  She was pretty upset with me and informed me that there wouldn't be toys to go through in the airport, but I pointed out there would be hundreds of people and she wouldn’t be able to just abandon one bag and go back for it.  Finally, she got her stuff into the car, and we all sat in the living room and tucked into a bag of Lindt truffles that her friend, Taylor, had given her.


We left at about 12 noon, stopped to copy her report card for AFS, and then headed to McLean to drop her off and say our final goodbyes.  It was a tearful ride up for me (every try driving when you’re crying and trying not to cry?  It’s not easy!), and Penny said she was trying not to cry her eyes out while we went.  It was definitely rough.  We discussed our year and she thanked us again for giving her the opportunity to stay and prove herself and we told her she had done a great job.

We got to the drop off location and Penny gave her stuff to AFS Volunteer Paul, who was manning the luggage truck (They had gotten a Uhaul!).  Another volunteer informed us we had 5 minutes, and despite my earlier sentiment in the day that it would be better to rip off the band aid and just be done with goodbye, suddenly only having a few final moments together sucked.  Penny asked us to go out to the car so we would have a little privacy instead of standing around with the other kids and their families, and so we did.  She put Leah in her carseat, hugged and kissed her, and the tears were really flowing.  We shared a family hug, she hugged Mike hard and helped him into his seat, while he was busy assuring her that we love her and are proud of her, and then she walked me to my side of the car and I hugged her until I couldn’t hug her any more.  Through our tears, I told her I loved her and to be a good girl and she swore she’d call from Thailand and she loved us.  I got in the car, and that was that.  We left her there, crying in the street, as we drove slowly away. I couldn’t even bring myself to look in the rearview mirror.  (And I didn’t take pictures—we were all a mess and there just wasn’t time anyway!)

On the way up, she asked why I was crying and I said I hated myself for driving her up there and away from us.  That was nothing compared to how much I hated myself for driving away from her.  But there was nothing else to be done—we had to say goodbye, and we always knew this day was coming.  It’s part of the experience, and despite the fact that it is now Thursday and I am crying as I type this, it does get easier and as we told her, “it’s not good-bye, it’s just see you next time!”

So we got home and Monday night I spent the evening stacking her belongings in the closet in that room and changing the blanket on the bed.  The room is now basically empty, which has helped Leah make the transition to understanding that Penny is gone.  She has done really remarkably well—she is living the dream as an only child again and center of our attention.  She asks for Penny every day, but seems satisfied with, “Penny went bye bye” or “Penny went to see her mommy” and there are no tears, we just move on to the next thing. 

Last night I stayed up, tracking Penny’s flight, until I saw it safely landed in Bangkok. There was a definite sense of it ending, and a few friends on Facebook this morning put “Welcome back” on her page, so she must be there.  I know we will hear from her again, and we’ve kept busy, so it’s easy enough to be patient. 

And thus endeth our year.  We are now officially a “former host family” and a very proud one at that.  I’m still somewhat numb and can only explain it like as if someone had cut off a finger—nothing life threatening has happened, but I definitely have to get used to living a little bit differently.  We all miss our girl, but we’re doing fine.  Who knows what adventures will follow!


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Good Bye Party

P1120982 Penny has been gone for a day, impossible as it seems!!!  I will write more on that later, but for now, I wanted to put up some pictures from her goodbye party.  We had a backyard BBQ party on Saturday and invited a pile of people from the neighborhood, school, and friends and family to come and say good bye one last time. Penny decided to cook Thai food for everyone, so she made her awesome green curry and Suki noodles (which I am going to MISS like CRAZY!).  In addition, we had hot dogs, potato and macaroni salad, a pineapple peach casserole, shrimp dip, french onion dip, crackers, and chips.  The piece de resistance, as far as Penny and her girlfriends were concerned was the chocolate fountain I set up—something I had left over from my sister’s wedding and which I LOVE to pull out as often as I can, which thus far as been my sister’s wedding, Leah’s welcome to the family party, and now Penny’s good bye.  Penny had so much fun choosing the dippers for the fountain, but ultimately we decided on pound cake, cheese cake, pretzels, strawberries, bananas, brownies, and rice krispies treats. 

We also found out that Walmart had a 1 hour banner printing service, so we had a special banner printed up for her and she decided to ask everyone to sign it.  We also had a table set up with cards and stickers and stuff so that everyone could make her a card to go in a photo album.  Both were a great success and she got a lot of beautiful sentiments from both.

P1130032The party started at 6pm, and we had about 30 people or so over.  Penny’s best friends all came, so we had a lot of squealing and giggling that lasted till nearly 11pm, when it turned to tears and hugs and promises to keep in touch.  There’s not much else to say, so I’ll just post pictures of Penny with everyone for you to enjoy, and make comments as appropriate underneath each one.  When I can even think about it without tearing up, I’ll write a post about D-Day, the day she left!

 P1120990The assembled crowd
We made Penny give a little speech.  She said, “I know I’m not gonna have such a great year without everyone here.”
With our friends, The Harrisons
With JB, who was her homecoming date, and his dad, Dave.  They live just up the street from us.
With our neighbors, the Summers family.  Baby Fred was born while Penny was here and she was able to hold him when he was only 6 hours old.  Lisa attempted to turn Penny Greek by feeding her lots of stuffed grape leaves and teaching her to make Greek New Year’s Bread this year.
Our neighbors, Sherri and Mark.  We recently became friendly with them and they are very interested in going to Thailand and loved getting to know Penny.
Penny with my brother-in-law Lucas, nephew “Chunk”, dearest friend Joe, sister Judy, and niece “Dot Dot”
Penny with our friends, the Tompkinses.  Kristine and I were co-workers when I was still working.
Penny was so happy, she decided to dance.
Penny with some of our best friends, Melissa, Emily, and Andy
Penny and Emily

Penny with our dear friends and frequent dinner dates, the Kosnoskis
Penny with the Blind Guy Squad, Andrew Tompkins and Mike

An awesome picture of us with our girl

Penny and her girlfriends Taylor, Lesley, Charlie, Chrissy, and Beth
Penny and our friend Cindy

The girls enjoying the chocolate fountain.  They were starting to get silly and Dot wanted out! :0D

Thanks to everyone who came, and to those who sent their sentiments along who were unable to make it.  It was a special day for Penny and I know she felt so loved and so special!

Monday, June 27, 2011

New York, New York

P1010954 So, part of Penny’s “probation” came with the promise that if she behaved herself, I would take her to NYC at the end of her stay.  I had originally been planning to take her at the beginning of June but figured she wouldn’t have much incentive to “be good” afterwards, so I decided I would take her at the end.  I consulted with my friend, Melissa, who is my back up momma for Leah and she was finishing school as a first grade teacher this past week and would be happy to mind Leah for us while we went to NYC.  So we decided to go on Thursday, June 23rd.  Due to a bunch of financial considerations, we decided to cut the trip down to 1 full day instead of two, and when checking Amtrak for cheap tickets, the cheapest I could get were to leave at either 3 or 4 AM and get back to DC at 1AM.  I chose leaving at 4AM, only as it would provide a LITTLE bit of extra sleep, and booked our tickets.  Penny had two goals in mind:  Statue of Liberty and Chinatown.  Beyond that, she was leaving it up to me.

I went to college in NYC, and so it was a tough choice as to which of the ten million things people want to see when they think of NY that I could squeeze into just one day.  And also bearing in mind Penny’s interests and being sensitive to her desire to stay out of the sun.  I made an ambitious plan that basically involved us starting south and heading north from the Statue of Liberty to Ground Zero to Chinatown, and then heading north to 72nd Street to see Strawberry Fields and Gray’s Papaya, then walking south to Lincoln Center, Central Park, 5th Avenue, Times Square, and finally the Empire State Building.  It was not to be, but I did things I hadn’t planned on and only missed the stops at 72nd Street, so I feel pretty good about what we accomplished!

We dropped Leah off at Melissa’s on Wednesday night and then headed up to my sister’s house to bunk down on the floor for a few hours.  My sister lives only about 20 minutes from DC’s Union Station, so it was the smart thing to do—getting up at 3AM instead of 2:00 here at home and driving up.  The alarm went off at 3, just as Penny was having a nightmare, so that scared her a bit, but we were ready and out the door at 3:15 and made it to the train station in no time.  We managed to snag a nice face-to-face section of 4 seats in a quiet car, where my toddler is typically not allowed, and stretched out to try and get a bit more sleep.  Penny was too excited to sleep, and I had a new Janet Evanovich book to read, so neither of us slept much, although she did sleep some, and I managed to doze.  The train got stuck in Secaucus for about 40 minutes, so we got to NY at 8:00 instead of 7:15, and so rather than dilly-dallying to get breakfast somewhere, I ushered us along to the subway to South Ferry. 

Initially Penny said she only wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, she didn’t really care if we actually took the boat over to Liberty Island.  However, New York and fate had other plans for us—it was an absolutely MISERABLE day, hot and wet and foggy, and when we go to South Ferry, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces, much less the statue!  So I went up to the ticket booth and inquired if they had pedestal tickets, as the Statue’s website indicates you need to reserve your tickets to the pedestal a couple of weeks in advance and I didn’t really want to pay to go over to Liberty Island if we weren’t going to go inside the statue.  There were tickets available, however, and because it was such a miserable day and we couldn’t see anything, we decided to put forth the money and go over to Liberty Island. 

P1120230 Due to the weather, the boat ride over was absolutely miserable.  The boat rocked and bucked us around a great deal and people were pushing and shoving to get up on the top deck of the boat for what there was of a view.  It was hot, I was already sweating, and I was feeling seasick.  As we rolled past Ellis Island, it gave me a new appreciation for immigrants like my great-grandparents who endured similar journeys to get to our shores and made me think about Penny’s upcoming two day airplane journey back to Thailand and all she went through to get to us in the first place!  Finally we got close enough to the Statue that we could see her and some people on the right side of the boat were kind enough to let us have their spots so we could grab pictures.

Once on the island, I issued Penny a stern warning about disappearing where I couldn’t see her, and she promptly took off without me, me screaming at her to get back to where I was.  I then remembered my own 18-year-old self, fresh out of the mountains and let loose in NYC and considered my parents pretty darned brave to let their kid go live in the city by herself because my kid was going nowhere without me.  I corralled Penny over to the line for the pedestal and after checking my backpack and clearing security, we were inside the museum, where we saw the original torch and took pictures with some replicas.

P1120231  P1120234

We got on line to go up, and Penny was extremely impatient.  I kept telling her to breathe and relax, that we would be up there in no time, but she was really, really antsy.  Finally we got to the top of the pedestal, just under the feet, and made our way outside, and she began screaming her head off and shaking that we were so high up in the air and she was terrified and wanted to get down.  KIDS!  Sheesh!  So here she is, hugging the wall and refusing to go anywhere that she wasn’t pressed directly against it.  I tried the old, “You’re young!  You have the rest of your life to be scared!” thing, but it was clear she was having none of it, so we started back down the stairs and went to the next level down.

P1120242 This did not help any, she still felt we were way too high in the air!  I was dying to see the NYC skyline, and this is the great picture I got of it:

P1120243Yup.  You can faintly see some buildings in there somewhere, but it was pretty much a bust.  So we went down to the base of the statue, reclaimed our bags and walked around the bottom to get some pictures.

P1120247By this time, there was a boat docked and there wouldn’t be another one for 30 minutes, so we decided to get on that boat and head off.  We got to Ellis Island and I explained what it was and asked her if she would like to see it, but she’s not much of a museum type, so it didn’t appeal to her at all. (one of the advantages of going to college in NYC is that going to Ellis Island was actually a homework assignment for me my freshman year.  I found the place fascinating and could have spent the day there, but it’s not my trip, so we did not disembark!)

Our next stop was going to be Ground Zero.  Penny wasn’t entirely clear on what had happened there, given that she was not quite 9 when it happened, but she had heard about it and I had shown her pictures of the old skyline and some pictures of what happened and she thought it would be a good thing to see.  I had last been there a few years ago when I led a group of conference participants to Ground Zero when I was attending a conference at Helen Keller National Center on Long Island.  So I was interested to see how it was changing and what was new.  Also, due to the fact we had yet to eat anything and it was nearly 11:00, I wanted to find some pizza!  Unfortunately, I got busy talking to Penny while we were on the train, so I missed our stop and we had to get out and walk to Ground Zero from a bit further away.  But eventually we found a subway station nearby and decided to hop back on and ride to the stop we needed.  (In retrospect, even though it was only 1 stop, I am SO glad we did it!  We walked SO HARD and SO FAR Thursday, I was sore for a couple of days!)

P1120250The rain started by then, and I snapped a quick picture of Penny from the sidewalk. You can see there is a lot of construction going on around there now, and sadly to me at least, there are a lot of hawkers down there trying to get you to buy books and pins and hats and crap about 9/11.  I politely pushed two of them away and then put on my NYC game face and we were left alone.  We looked around a bit and then as I had walking directions to Chinatown from Ground Zero, we decided to start walking.

P1120252 About halfway there, I was thinking we were seriously lost.  We’d gone a good number of blocks and not found Canal Street and we were hot, wet, and tired already.  Thankfully, out of the blue like a beacon shone Star Pizza, and we stopped in for Penny’s first NY pizza experience.  I taught her how to fold it before you eat it, and we guzzled down beverages as if we hadn’t had a drink in months.  Thus refreshed, we headed to Chinatown, which took us another 20 minutes or so worth of walking before we finally found it (FIE ON YOU, Chinatown website that made it sound like a quick and easy stroll!)

P1120254 Penny asked me what I wanted to do there and I answered honestly that I had never been and just brought her because she wanted to see it and to walk around and look at whatever she wanted to do.  She wanted to eat something, and was a bit disappointed that most of the stores were jewelry and souvenir stores.  Eventually we happened upon a restaurant with ducks hanging in the window, which seemed to indicate some authenticity in everyone’s minds and so we went into Sun Sai Gai restaurant and were immediately screamed at by any number of old Chinese men who were moving briskly and efficiently around the place, filling empty seats, taking order, throwing tea, and slinging food that was coming up the dumbwaiter.  Penny knows Chinese and was laughing at whatever they were yelling, but I have no idea what was going on.  Eventually we ordered—she got duck soup and I got some kind of Cantonese noodles—and we dug in almost immediately.

P1010977 P1120258

Penny was in heaven, assuring me that everything was absolutely authentic and truly it was unlike any Chinese food I have eaten in the US, so I am inclined to believe her! :)  It was absolutely delicious, we shared each other’s dishes and I’m so glad I tried her soup, even if it was way too hot for soup!  By the time we finished lunch, it was POURING down rain, so I decided to modify the route.  There was an N train right outside and we hopped on and headed for Times Square to go to Madame Tussaud’s, one of the few indoor activities I had planned for us.

P1020018 I could not have chosen an activity that was a bigger hit with Penny.  From the moment we got to the first room, she was squealing, running around, camera and umbrella flying, “Take me a picture!” issuing from her mouth every 3.2 seconds.  She didn’t even know who half the “people” were who were displayed, she was just embraced in the sheer joy and excitement of the thing and wanted it all captured.  Her favorite figures were Capt. Jack Sparrow and Rob Pattinson, but she LOVED all of the figures.  We spent over 2 hours in the museum, and she never went past a single figure that I didn’t snap her picture.  We participated in the 4D movie experience that was included, and it was cute, and at least a chance to sit for a few minutes, as I knew we were about to do some serious amounts of walking.

P1020032 P1010991 P1020004

P1020101 When we got back outside, we found that the rain had stopped, so we rolled on back to Times Square and I grabbed a couple of pictures of her up there.  There wasn’t a whole lot going on, although we were accosted by some guys from a Beatles tribute band.  It was a pretty miserable day, so the lights were shining pretty well, which was good since we didn’t wind up going back at night, which I know was a bit disappointing, but still we were just exhausted by that point.

Anyway, we walked and walked and cut over towards Fifth Avenue, since I wanted Penny to see Radio City Music Hall and the NBC studios before we got to Rockefeller Center.  We hit both those stops pretty quickly, since we didn’t have a tour of the studios lined up and just walked past Radio City en route.

P1020106  P1020108The first thing Penny noticed at Rockefeller Center was the flags of all nations and we were immediately on a quest to find the Thai flag.  Thankfully she spotted it in pretty short order and was more impressed by that than she was by the statue and the center itself!

P1020110Across the street from Rockefeller Center is the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I wanted to show her that.  It had the added advantage of being indoors and out of the weather and she was fully impressed by the beauty and peace of the place, as I had expected her to be.

P1020117 After I felt compelled to say a prayer and did so, we both decided we were having bathroom emergencies, so we hightailed it up 5th Ave. until we came to a Forever 21, Penny’s favorite store.  There were 4 bathrooms listed on the store directory, and every single one of them was out of order.  We browsed for a while, and then made an unintended stop over at Trump Tower, hoping to find a public restroom in there.  Nope, nada!  But I got a fun picture of Penny on the escalator and she was impressed to be in Trump’s building, since she had heard of him!


(See those bags under Penny’s eyes?  We were feeling the strain!)

P1020121 Upon not finding a bathroom at Trump’s place, we kept walking and finally got to FAO Schwartz, where I knew for a fact there were restrooms.  I directed her through traffic to the restrooms, and once satisfied, we had a look around.  We were both really disappointed at how little Hello Kitty stuff was there, and by and large, I was really disappointed in how much the place had changed and how it had just turned into a giant toy store instead of the wonderland it used to be.  So we left with nothing to show for it except for a packet of Asian grape candies and a cool picture we snapped outside as we were leaving—probably one of my two favorites I took of Penny in New York (the other will be the last photo on this post!).

We crossed the street to see the Ai WeiWei sculptures outside the Plaza Hotel.  There are 12 animal heads representing the 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac.  Little did I know, Mr. Ai is being detained by the Chinese government, so as cool as the sculptures are, I felt like a bit of a bad ass taking my good girl Thai student to see the art of someone the Chinese consider a dissident.

P1020122The statues are generic, but beautiful, and fit my sensibilities in what I like in art, and it was fun to find the monkey (Penny’s sign) and the rabbit (mine).

P1020124 From there, we headed for a stroll in Central Park, and our feet were killing us.  Penny’s knees were starting to give in and we no sooner hit the park when she needed another bathroom break, so we pressed forward until we found one near a playground in the park.  I sat outside while she went in and  then we decided to take stock of our situation.  It was about 6:00 at that point, and we were both hot, smelly, tired, and kind of over it!  I asked Penny what more she wanted to, explained the two stops we hadn’t yet made on my itinerary, and we agreed to catch the 59th street subway to Lincoln Center and then head back to 34th Street.

P1020125We literally got off the train, took the picture, and got back on the train.  While we were heading back south, Penny asked me if I knew where we could get famous NY black and white cookies, so we decided that would be our new quest.  I asked her about going to the top of the Empire State Building, which is something that in my “old age” I really would like to do, but upon discussing it, and based on how freaked out she was at the Statue of Liberty, we decided against it.  Still, she wanted to see it, so we got down there and started walking in that direction.  Looking up at the building, I knew we made the right decision, since the top of it was encased in fog.  We wouldn’t have seen much of anything at all.

P1120273P1020129 And so we went inside and took a picture of Penny in the lobby and decided to go find better pizza than we had already eaten.  This time, we stumbled upon Little Italy pizza, definitely a step up from Star Pizza, but definitely not the best pizza I’ve eaten in NY.  Penny was thrilled to see everyone else folding their pizza in half to eat it, and I think she felt a bit like a NYer that day while she emulated everyone else’s style.

We wandered to a few places looking for cookies—Starbucks, Manhattan Mall—but nothing jumped out at us, so we decided to try our luck at the many eateries in Penn Station and in the very first one we went to, we had success!!!!  I bought us each a cookie and me a bottle of water, and we found the Amtrak waiting area and parked our butts.  It was 7:30, and we were officially exhausted.  Our train wasn’t leaving till 10:00, but we sat there and played games on my iPod until our train was called.  We got back in the quiet car and then Penny fell asleep.  I wasn’t able to sleep much, unfortunately, and was awake most of the trip, dozing fitfully here and there while waiting to get home to DC.  Thankfully the train ran on time and we got back to DC right at about 1:15AM, and were in the car and ready to roll by 1:30.

Unfortunately, VDOT decided to do overnight roadwork and 95 South was down to 1 lane, so we were stuck in traffic!  I was so upset, overtired, I just started cursing a blue streak.  Penny woke up long enough to ask, “What’s going on?” and then pass back out.  By the time we got home at 3AM, I could barely make it up the steps, and Penny and I stood on the front walk, giggling, while I seriously debated crawling.  I made it up the steps and up to the second floor of the house, bid Penny good night, and passed out cold until 9AM when my neighbor decided to mow his lawn.  AUGH!  I felt cursed!  I laid in bed, chatting to my husband on the phone for about an hour, relaying our adventures, and then got ready to face Friday.

It really was an amazing trip, I’m so glad I took Penny and we got to see so much stuff and do so many things.  I hope she’ll never forget it, since I know I never will!