A Minnesota Family Reunion: August 2002

I'm still not sure how we managed to get away for that long, but this August we managed to take a giant, wonderful, two-week vacation to Minnesota and California. Read on for our trip journal and photographs from the Minnesota portion of our trip. Or, skip ahead to California. . . .

The photo above was taken near the end of our stay in Minnesota, but I like it here at the beginning. From left to right, we are Robert, me, Dad, Mom, Uncle Frank (back), Mark, Vanessa, and Aurora (front, with corn). This way, you get to see some people before I start writing about them.

Sunday, August 18th, 9:23 AM     

I'm in Minnesota at the moment, sitting in a beautiful, freshly painted blue and yellow and white room that used to be Robert's grandparents. It's in the house that used to be theirs as well, which Grandma Gracie sold to Mark when she moved into the nursing home. Mark and Vanessa live there now--their wedding will be this October, three years from the day they met.

I hadn't met Vanessa before, but I liked her right away. When I come out to Minnesota and spend time with Robert's cousins, and when every new person I meet here is as nice as Vanessa, and when I wake up in the morning to blindingly bright sunshine and Warwick-green fields (they call them "lawns," or "gardens," but let's face it--they're fields) spread out beyond the windows, it always makes me want to move here. I imagine myself living here for good, wearing Laura Ashley prints in the summer and dancing like Julie Andrews in the fields, and then all bundled up in LL Bean fleece things in the winter, happily ice-fishing on a lake. It's a strange, simpler side of me that always surfaces here.

When I thanked Vanessa last night for having us here, she said no, that she was the one who should be thanking me, because when faced with the deadline of two cousins flying in from Boston and staying with them, Mark actually got around to finishing the renovation of their only bathroom ("It's nice to have a working shower again," she confided) and to painting the extra bedroom and hall.

We flew in yesterday midday, and our flight was good, though they didn't give us anything to eat. "We are happy to provide you with a complete beverage service," they announced. "Can I have a Coke?" I asked, only to find out that Northwest was a Pepsi airline. "Can I have a little bottle of water?" Robert asked, only to find out that they don't give individual bottles the way, say, Delta does. Sigh. . . .Well, we did have some cherry and grape tomatoes from our garden that we picked before we left, eaten out of the hand with a little sour cream-chipotle dip. The tomatoes, sweet and juicy and ripe, disappeared quickly. When we got to the airport in Minnesota, with one accord we set about finding food.

That's one of the reasons I love traveling with Robert--not only does his shoulder provide an excellent pillow to sleep on nearly every minute of the entire flight over, but we often seem to be of one mind when it comes to the logistics of traveling. We both agree on times when we're hungry, but can pass up the chains and fast-food places in favor of something yet unknown, but maybe better, still to come, and we agree on times when there is nothing more important than getting something to eat now, price and quality be damned. Actually, we had a very nice lunch in the airport--I stood on the Cinnabon line to get dessert, while he stood on the California Pizza Kitchen line to get lunch itself.

"Hi, I'd like a medium Coke and a pecan bun," I told the Cinnabon woman when it was my turn in line.

"A medium Coke and a pecan bun?" she asked, and I confirmed it. I waited for her to give me a total. "Hm. . . I have two Cinnabons in my machine," she said.

I stared at her.

"Anyone want two Cinnabons?" she asked.

The people behind me shook their heads. "I want one Cinnabon and a milk," a girl behind me said, trying to be helpful.

The cashier looked at me. "Two Cinnabons?" she asked.

"No," I said. I don't even like Cinnabons. "I want a medium Coke and a pecan bun."

"I'll have to get a manager," she said.

This went on for awhile. After she cleared the two Cinnabons, I repeated my order, and she handed me a cup for Coke and gave me a single Cinnabon.

"I wanted a pecan bun," I said.

The people behind me on line were getting very restless.

"But I have a Cinnabon in my machine," she said.

"I don't want a Cinnabon," I reminded her.

"I'll have to get a manager," she said.

Finally, we got to eat lunch--the pecan bun (which miraculously managed to get here before the pizza) and a Thai chicken pizza. As we sat eating lunch, with our carry-ons around us, one carry-on in particular caught the eye of a little girl on the interminable Cinnabon line with her mother: a penguin-shaped plastic jar, complete with feet, googly eyes, a nice penguin nose, and a red top hat with a yellow handle to carry it from, filled with fruit-flavored individual Jello treats from a Chinese supermarket. I bought it when we were shopping with George, his brother, and their Wisconsin friends on Friday night, because it was one of the most adorable things I've ever seen. We decided to bring it out on the plane and give it to Uncle Mike's three kids, and, if the reaction of the 8- or 9-year-old girl on line was any indication, they'll love it.

"Mom, look at that chicken," she whispered loudly. "Look at it!" Following her own advice, she stared at it, smiling.

When she got a little closer to us, I smiled at her.

"I like your chicken," she said shyly.

"Thanks," I said, "but I think it's a penguin--look at its arms."

"I do, too," she said. "That's what I think!"

(Later, a security guard, after running it through an x-ray machine, also admired my penguin.)

We collected our bags and got a luggage cart--swindled out of an old man who was about to return his and desperately wanted to get his quarter deposit back. Robert handed him a quarter, and he thanked us for "helping" him out with the cart. With all our bags piled on the cart, we found a perfect spot to sit and wait for my parents' plane--on a little ledge against a sloping lit-up map of Minneapolis, where Mom and Dad found us about 15 minutes later.

After we got their luggage and added it to the cart, we headed over to the rental car counter. Mom and I sat with the bags while Dad and Robert did the paperwork. At one point, Robert bounced over to ask a burning question: "Mitsubishi Diamante or Buick something-or-other?" I thought about it, and reflected that they were both extremely boring cars. Robert bounced back to the counter, and soon we found ourselves loading our stuff into a boring tan Buick. Across the way, a PT Cruiser beckoned to us, and for $45 extra for the week and a few extra minutes of paperwork now, Robert arranged for us to rent the more exciting car. It made sense--it's very comfortable, has a ton of headroom, and it's the car my father had his heart set on buying a year ago, at the height of demand for PT Cruisers, but didn't because he refused to pay more than list price for a car. Robert just now reminded me how well his upgrade to the Cruiser has worked out--everyone, from Grandma Gracie to Uncle Frank to Mark and Vanessa, has commented on the car and complimented it. It's only for a week--we figure that if you're going to rent a car, you might as well like the one you end up renting.

Robert just finished his morning round of phone calls, to the Aunts, Grandma Helena, and my parents. My parents today are sightseeing in Stillwater, a neighborhood with lots of antique stores and quaint cafes, and then they're going to meet us at Uncle Frank's house this afternoon for dinner.

Yesterday, after checking Mom and Dad into their hotel, we headed over to Uncle Frank's. We got there around 4, and found the door unlocked, the dog (Kelly) friendly and very unthreatening, the TV on, and the house empty. We eventually found everyone down the street at Mark and Vanessa's, and then we returned to Frank and Martha's for dinner--twenty ears of freshly-picked corn on the cob from their garden, a mountain of grilled steaks and chicken, salad, garlic bread, mushrooms, and cheesecake. No one went home hungry.

Everyone got along well with my parents--of course, everyone (with wide open "o"s) commented on my parents' New York accents, but otherwise really liked them. Grandma Gracie was especially happy to have finally been able to have been able to meet them. After dinner, my father pulled out his mandolin, which he'd brought on Judy's recommendation, and played Greek and Italian songs for Grandma Gracie. My parents toured the garden, and then we all parted for the night.

The exciting part of the evening had just begun for us, though, because we got to accompany Mark and Vanessa to a fabric store to pick up the fabric for her wedding gown and her bridesmaids' dresses. Fortunate enough to have a cousin who's a seamstress, Vanessa had already picked out fabric and patterns, but waited until tonight to purchase them because there was a 50% off sale today. [At right are Vanessa and Mark in the fabric store.] Robert and I fulfilled the valuable functions of distracting Mark from the photo of Vanessa's dress-to-be, snapping pictures of the historic bridal dress shopping moment, and offering moral support throughout the long ordeal. Then, we rented a bunch of DVDs at Blockbuster and headed home to watch "Pay it Forward" and eat popcorn.

Monday, August 19th, 9:47 AM

Yesterday morning, when Mark and Vanessa got back from church, we met up with Brian and went for dim sum at a place recommended by the owners of a Chinese restaurant across the street from Uncle Frank's store: Mandarin Kitchen, in Bloomington. Aunt Martha and Uncle Frank declined to go, saying that they'd have some quiet time together, and Mom and Dad decided to go to Stillwater to have brunch and go to antiques stores and walk around. We had a wonderful dim sum--great food, friendly service, and great English of the staff, even though we did have to wait for about half an hour. [Here, at left, are Vanessa, Mark, and Brian sitting on a curb waiting.] In particular, there was a superb squid dish I'd never had before--steamed squid, just crispy and perfectly cooked, in a light soy sauce and ginger and vinegar sauce, which was absolutely delicious.

In the afternoon, we played cards with Grandma Gracie (Robert caught her trying to cheat twice. She chuckled, and said, "No one but you, Bob, would've noticed that," as she put the cards back into her hand.) and went to a driving range nearby with Mark. All the Minnesota family are wonderful golfers, and I liked watching Mark's out-of-the-park-home-run golf balls soar up, hover, lift a little higher, and finally disappear into the distance time after time, much more than watching my own balls muck around on the ground a ways, knock into a few other balls, and finally stop about twenty or fifty feet away. While we were there, we ran into two of Robert and Mark's cousins--Grandma Gracie's brother Jojo's son and grandson--who stopped to say hello, hit some balls, and eventually buy us more balls and give us some pointers.

Back to Aunt Martha's for dinner, the entire family converged--Mike, Nancy, and Josie, Lexie, and Mitchell as well as everyone from the night before, so that we were fifteen people in all. Angelina, one of Mike's older daughters, came by after dinner. Josie is ten and going into the fifth grade, which is amazing, because we remember her being a toddler at Christine's first wedding, walking around turning off the lights in the hall at the rehearsal dinner. She talked to me a little bit about reading Holes. Lexie is going into third grade and desperately wants to go to a castle and see a queen. I had her undivided attention and great admiration when I told her that, when I was a little younger than she is now, I went to England, saw the Queen's palace and another big castle, and saw the Queen drive by in a car and wave. Mitchell, exhausted lying on the carpet at 8 PM, called to his mother very sweetly, "Nancy, can we go home? I'm tired!" After dinner, Angelina, Mark, Vanessa, and Robert and I went back down the street and sat in Mark and Vanessa's living room and talked for hours. Mark watched "Heat" while we chatted, and finally both Mark and Vanessa went to bed, so we saw Angelina out and to her car around 1 AM

At the moment, I'm waiting for Robert to finish his shower so that we can go meet Aurora at the airport with Mom and Dad. Surprisingly, he's running late.
10:44 PM

Sitting in Mark and Vanessa's living room, watching Vanessa iron, listening to Aurora silently sleep in the other room, keeping one eye on the clock for our laundry, we're all here and half-watching TV as well.

This morning, we met Aurora's plane and went straight to the Mall of America. For about five minutes, Aurora was shy around my parents, but after that she was fine. We piled out of the car and went straight to the Rainforest Cafe, at around 11:30, because neither Robert nor Aurora had gotten to eat any breakfast. We split an "Awesome Appetizer Platter," which Aurora noted was "really awesome!" and Aurora had chicken fingers in dinosaur shapes and some of all of our meals--crab cakes for Mom and Dad, barbequed beef wrap for Robert, and shrimp and pineapple salad for me--and then a giant "Volcano," which was slabs of double-decker brownies with caramel filling and ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and more caramel sauce, which even the five of us couldn't finish. The atmosphere at the Rainforest Cafe was an odd combination of Las Vegas and Pirates of the Caribbean, but it somehow worked. Aurora calmed down and relaxed, and everyone got lots of good food in them and got to know each other better. The rainstorm sound effects and the moving monkeys in the ceiling provided great entertainment, and the gift shop offered temptation (ultimately satisfied) in the form of glow-in-the-dark tee animal tee shirts.

The rest of the Mall of America was equally satisfying. We went over to the Lego part, admiring large Lego Harry Potters, Jango Fetts, triceratops, and airplanes, and building small Lego cars and racing them against other children's. Then Mom and Dad went off to buy a sweater for Mom--it being 55 or 60 degrees in Minnesota this week, as opposed to the 90 or 95 it was in Boston and New York when we left--and Robert, Aurora, and I strolled over to Camp Snoopy. The three of us rode the Mighty Axe together, going up and over and upside down and around, and then Aurora rode it again by herself and the roller coaster once by herself as well. Suckers that we are, we bought the amusement-park-provided picture of Aurora screaming and enjoying the ride, though we did insist that they print a second copy of the picture, in better quality, than the first grainy, blurry, bluish one.

Next along the way was the Apple Store, with all of us sitting in the kids' section playing games on the iMacs and green carpet and black cushy ball-seats for awhile. We went to Old Navy to buy Aurora some much-needed socks and me a pair of jeans and a fleece vest, to help with the temperature differential from what we expected.

Our last stop was the Turtley Awesome Underwater Adventure--a mini-aquarium under the East Entrance of the mall, complete with over 1300 turtles of various kinds and a 300-foot walkway through a tunnel with fish swimming over your head and around you. Aurora was duly impressed, alternately shrieking delightedly, "Uncle Bobby, take a picture of this one!" "Oh wow, look at that shark!" and other excited exclamations. At the end of the aquarium was another gift shop (temptation: large soft stuffed dolphin, purchased and carted around) and a pool with sharks and stingrays that Aurora petted, up to her armpits in water, partly for the experience and partly to earn the "I touched a shark today" sticker offered her. Robert, Aurora, and I did a sticker photo booth with a dolphin background, and we said goodbye to the Mall.

With stickers on wallets and laptops and stuffed animals, we piled back into the car and drove back to Centerville Road, conducting an interview with the dolphin, Aqua Marine, in the car along the way. I dozed in between questions, and returned to Mark and Vanessa's feeling refreshed.

Dinner was at Frank and Martha's again, though Mom and Dad decided to eat on their own and not bother the family again. We ate BLTs with fresh tomatoes from the garden and steak and cheese sandwiches, and pie for dessert, and then Aurora rolled down the hill to the neighbor's chicken coop and walked around the garden for a few minutes. We walked back down the street, chasing each other happily, and ran into one of Robert's great uncles sitting outside a garage. He recognized me, and we went over and chatted. Eventually Mark turned up with the car, wondering where we'd disappeared to, while Aurora was in the middle of an animated story about a shark. We took a brief pass through Mark's backyard and admired the sunset, and then Aurora took a bath, read a chapter of Eleanor Estes's The Moffats, and went to bed.

When an exhausted Mark, Jerry, Brian, and Robert finished playing basketball, we did laundry, watched "Amelie," and headed off to bed ourselves, another great Minnesotan day, over. I think Amelie's adult haircut is the best ever--as soon as we get back to Boston I want to get it myself.

Wednesday, 9:26 AM

Tuesday morning dawned bright and early for me when Aurora--put to sleep in our bed, then moved to the couch in the middle of the night--entered our room at six and stood silently in the doorway. She didn't shake us awake or say anything, but I woke up anyway--it was as effective as a cat staring at you and asking louder than words for a snack. So I got up with her and we had orange juice, cocoa, bananas, and Star Wars Cereal. Star Wars Cereal always makes me happy for the whole day, and Aurora appeared to take a similar joy in the eating of small marshmallow R2-D2s.

By the time Robert wandered out of the bedroom at 8:30, we had had an exciting Star Wars conversation (topic to consider: "Seriously, why do you think Anakin turns evil? Episode III is going to be really scary!"), read another chapter of The Moffats, played many hands of a new card game, taken a mile-long walk around the neighborhood with Vanessa, and played a couple rounds of Mark's Frogger game. Mark offered to make breakfast, which Aurora promptly agreed to ("Second breakfast! Yay!"), so she devoured three frozen waffles with syrup, an egg over easy, and part of a cheese and turkey omelet.

While Robert got showered and dressed and got his hair cut by Aunt Annie, Aurora and I took another walk. Robert, Mom, and Dad in the PT Cruiser met us near the end of our walk, and the three of us drove to Grandma Gracie's nursing home nearby. Though she's on oxygen and a walker and in a nursing home, Grandma Gracie is incredibly active. She had her sister Margaret (Aunt Mugsie) meet us at the nursing home with chicken chow mein and banana bars for lunch, and we ate together at a small table in our own room. After lunch, my father pulled out his mandolin and played for Grandma Gracie, a friend of hers, Aurora, and a few aides, including the resident music therapist. We moved into the main dining room when everyone else was finished with their lunch and played cards until Bill and Judy arrived from Mt. Sterling, and then Grandma Gracie made us all go upstairs to listen to Bud Spedino, a local senior citizen accordion player, who comes to the nursing home to play for the residents periodically. She asked my father to get up and play with him, and in between his canned patter, Bud Spedino ("You'll like him, Christina--he's half Italian too," I was told) was forced to nod at my father and say, "All right, 'My One True Love' in the key of D." When my father tried to bow out, Grandma Gracie called out, "You play one more! Play 'Finiculi, Finicula,'" so he and Bud Spedino obediently did (". . . in the key of C"). [Below is a family portrait with Aunt Mugsie, the music therapist, and Grandma Gracie.] 


Judy and Bill were staying with Uncle Mike, so Robert went back with them to unpack and visit for a few hours until dinner, but Aurora had a headache and was tired, so Mom and Dad dropped us off at Mark and Vanessa's house and we read more of our books and had a snack (two sectioned, extremely sour, oranges with powdered sugar). Toward dinner, feeling better, Aurora went next door to visit cousin Gina and her dog, Cody, and then down the street to visit Uncle Louie and his dog, Molly, and further down to Uncle Frank and Kelly. Molly is my favorite of the family dogs--she's a shaggy dog kind of dog who's only about twice as long as she is wide. She's immensely fat, but very cylindrical, like a long sausage squashed from both ends and compressed. Brian was staggered by my taste in dogs when we had this conversation, but I do admire her.

Mom and Dad picked us up after our final walk of the day, and we met the rest of the family at The Olive Garden, where we were treating everyone to dinner. There was a mix-up with the reservation for sixteen, and when we finally got our table the service was very good, because they were so apologetic. Dinner was nice--decent food, and a great chance to visit. After dinner, Aurora went home with Uncle Mike to have a sleepover in Lexie's room, and Robert and I reveled in our child-free night--we went home to Mark and Vanessa and watched the rest of "Pay it Forward" and went to bed in the middle of terrible, exciting, heavy thunderstorms.
idnight. . .

This morning we got up around nine and hurriedly dressed. We met Mom and Dad and they drove us into Minneapolis, where Robert was meeting Beth from American Express for a casual pseudo-business lunch at Aquavit, arranged just because he was going to be in town on vacation. After we dropped him off, we drove down University Avenue into St. Paul, heading toward the Hmong community in Frogtown because we'd heard there was better Hmong food in St. Paul than in New York. We drove down stretches of streets that looked like Pico or Olympic Blvds. near where we used to live in West LA--perfectly fine, though slightly seedy, mixed neighborhoods with a combination of apartments, small stores, and big chains. In a strip mall along the way, we found Foodmart (544 University W.), a Hmong and Thai supermarket with some neat rice sausages and coconut, banana, sticky rice in banana leaves, as well as a Hmong buffet. We decided to go elsewhere for lunch, but we stocked up on snacks.

We had lunch at Porky's [pictured left and above right], on the corner of University and Snelling, a drive-in hamburger joint with a giant neon pig, a measly couple of picnic tables, a parking lot with awnings, and a sign that cheerfully announces, "Welcome! Dine in your car!" We all had cheeseburgers, which come wrapped in waxed paper with a single beautifully battered onion ring underneath the hamburger in the wrapping, a side of coleslaw and wonderful fries with bits of the skin still on the potatoes, and, if you order a Supreme burger, a very nice chocolate chip cookie. I had a coffee shake with lunch, made with real coffee.

After lunch we drove into downtown St. Paul and went to the James J. Hill house, on Summit Ave. a block away from the cathedral. We walked in the door at 1pm, and they were just about to start the 1pm tour, so we hurriedly turned off our cell phones, as requested, and joined the tour. It's a great historic home, built by railroad baron Hill of the Great Northern Pacific Railroad. The home is mostly unfurnished now, but in each room are photographs of the contents of the house at the time of the death of Hill and his wife (intestate) in 1921. When the tour ended, at 2:30 on the basement back porch, we turned our phones back on and discovered that Robert had called at 1:01, saying his lunch meeting was over and he was ready to meet us somewhere. Lost and alone, he spent an hour and a half wandering around the skyways of Minneapolis, where all the buildings practically are connected by walkways a flight or two above street level, to compensate for the cold, snowy winters. We soon met up with Robert and exchanged treats we'd gotten for each other--good banana sticky rice for him, Jamba Juice and Kettle Corn for me.

Mom and Dad went back to their hotel to swim and relax, and we went back home to take a nap before dinner. Judy picked us up at 5:20 to go get Grandma Gracie, and then we visited Uncle Gus before going to Uncle Frank's for dinner at 6. My parents met us there, bringing pies and several kinds of chicken and pizzas, and people trickled in and out until around 9. Mark and Vanessa were having taco night and bridesmaids' dress fittings at their house down the street, so Mark ran between the two houses, borrowing a frying pan, resting for a moment, and Josie eventually found her way down the street to where her flower girl sister Lexie and mom Nancy were with the bridesmaids. Robert and Jerry and I helped referee a couple pool and ping pong games in the basement among the kids, with Mitch and Aurora trying to kill each other, and Lexie and Josie, when they got back, adding to the fray. We solved several minor crises--blueberry pie on the dolphin, Mitch's ping pong paddle hitting Aurora's finger, accusations of too many do-overs in pool, and others along these lines. Uncles Louie and Gus wandered over to meet my parents, and Judy, Grandma Gracie, Aunt Martha, and Mom sat at the table poring over old family pictures.

By 9:30, Aurora and I were back at Mark and Vanessa's house in the tub, and at 10 she was in bed. I left a light on because she asked, and left her her book (The Island of the Aunts) and said she could read herself to sleep. I heard a few chuckles at the book, and then, somewhere between 10 and 11, she fell asleep. Yes, it's later than her usual bedtime, but she was reading a book! I sure wasn't going to go in there and take the book away from her and turn out the light if she still wanted to read it.

Now Vanessa is upstairs in bed, I have laundry in both the washer and the dryer, and Robert and Mark and I are sitting here watching "Braveheart."

Thursday night to early Friday, 12:27 AM

This morning Aurora woke us up again, but let us go back to sleep until 8:00 because Vanessa offered to eat early-morning cereal with her. Mark had the whole day off of work, and he woke up just before my parents arrived, around 10:00, to pick us up for the day's activities. Having already watered Mark's lawn, tree, and sidewalk for him and run around in the mud, a moist Aurora joined us in the car, but Mark declined to squeeze in and decided to spend a low-key morning home.

Mom, Dad, Robert, and Aurora and I drove to a lock on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis that's supposed to be one of the tallest around. Even Robert and Aurora were wowed when we went up to the observation deck and saw the rushing, falling water and the lock itself. [Below right are Aurora and Robert near the lock, and, oddly, near a Gold Medal Flour plant just out of sight in the background.] While we were there, there happened to be a long barge and a tugboat in the lock, so we got to see the water level drop slowly, the gates open, and the tugboat start to push the barge out. We headed over toward Minnehaha Falls and tried to see the Hiawatha and Minnehaha house, but it was closed, so we decided to scratch that and look for lunch. While en route to a Hmong restaurant I'd read about that then appeared not to really exist, we discovered a Mexican enclave with a bunch of nice, authentic-looking restaurants. We ate at El Burrito Mercado Cafe and Restaurante, on Concord Street near Route 52. It's a nice, big, clean Mexican supermarket with a cute souvenir section (Mom bought Aurora a tiny terra cotta pinata), a large dulce de leche section (read my digression on really good dulce de leche here, if you'd like), and a really nice cafeteria-type restaurant at the back with about a dozen small tables. Aurora had a plain cheese quesadilla, of which she ate nearly the entire thing, and a grape soda, and Mom and Dad had other kinds of quesadillas as well. Robert and I split a gordita platter, a chicken taco, and a tamal. The tamal was great--as good as the ones Mona used to make, and of the same variety--and the taco (soft-shelled, of course) and the gordita were both very juicy and messy and delicious. We had a wonderful, inexpensive lunch, and then we filled a box with Mexican donuts and pastries (including pan dulce and empanadas de pineapple, strawberry, and custard) to bring to Mike and Nancy's for the family to enjoy.

With Aurora demolishing an extra pan dulce in the car, and making more crumbs than one would have thought possible, we drove straight to Uncle Mike's. The day was grey and chilly, and no one was actually going to end up swimming in the lake, but the family started arriving for an afternoon together nonetheless.

At 2:30, Uncle Frank brought fifty ears of sweet corn, and he and my father shucked it together. Someone arrived with Grandma Gracie. Aurora, Josie, Lexie, Mitch, and Brian were tearing around the skate park across the street on rollerblades (borrowed and entirely new to her, in Aurora's case), skateboards, and bikes. Mom and Aunt Martha set off for a brief walk near the lake.

Everyone ate lots of corn--I think I had six ears over the course of the day--and there was lots of other food too if you were hungry for it. Mike, Robert, and Brian took turns riding the Seadoos on the lake, sometimes taking along a small child for a ride. Mike ferried the grown-ups out into the middle of the lake in his speedboat. Mark fished, catching a norther and a bullhead, both of which he threw back, with Lexie and Aurora fishing and playing around him. Mitch and just about everyone else took turns on the trampoline. Camille and Angelina came over later, and talked and played cards with Grandma Gracie and used the computer. There were a few minor crises, of course--Aurora stuck herself with a fish hook, drawing a tiny spot of blood and a lot of wails; Mitch wouldn't let any girls use or even touch his pogo stick; Aurora dropped Mark's expensive fishing pole into the water, but Mike fished it out; all the Seadoos and the boat ran out of oil and gas by the end of the day; Aurora wouldn't change out of her wet bathing suit, and sat around getting people and furniture damp--but these were all minor blemishes on an exciting day. On the plus sides, Aurora got an ice cream cone; everyone ate exactly what they wanted, when they wanted; I got to swing on Mike's swingset, pumping very high; the sun finally came out, and it warmed up to around 70; Aurora got a little better at skating by the end of the day; Dad played the mandolin and Mitch really enjoyed it, trying to pick out songs along with him; and, as it was the end of the week, we got to say our goodbyes to most of the family on a very nice note.

The biggest adventure of the day, however, occurred at around 3:30, when someone realized that Mom and Aunt Martha still weren't back from their walk. Neither one had a cell phone--they had gone out, with sweatshirts tied around their waists, for a brief walk, after all, sans water bottles and phones--but a search party was dispatched to find them: Bill, on bike, in the direction they had headed around the lake, and Dad and Uncle Frank, Aurora in tow, in a truck in the opposite direction, trying to head them off. All returned unsuccessfully half an hour or so later--Dad and Uncle Frank had driven around, stopping people and asking, "Have you seen two ladies walking here, our wives?" but realized that they couldn't describe them at all ("What were they wearing again?" Uncle Frank asked, scratching his head), and Bill had simply seen no one. Dad and Uncle Frank went out again immediately, in another direction, still looking.

We were getting slightly worried, though no one was really sure of what--two grown women aren't abducted in broad daylight from a small town in Minnesota, after all, I reasoned, but somehow it never occurred to me to worry about them falling into the lake or anything like that. At 4:40, Mom and Aunt Martha appeared, fanning themselves heavily, and bright red in the face. They had gotten lost, of course, and spent two hours wandering around. At one point, they'd seen the lake, and spotted Brian riding the Seadoo, but though they'd yelled and flapped, he hadn't seen them. They'd stopped and asked people how to get to Uncle Mike's street, but no one was very helpful--one man had never heard of the street, and one woman gave them bad directions. They finally ended up at a golf course, and then from there found their way back. When they arrived (their husbands following soon behind them) and told their story, there was much laughter and disbelief. Brian and I, in particular, were chuckling the rest of the afternoon about our moms' adventure.

We returned to Mark's house around 8:30, and after talking to her parents by phone, Aurora was soon bathed and read to and falling asleep in bed. Mark and Robert watched the end of "Amelie," and now are watching Jay Leno.    

Friday, 7:49 AM

Nearly all our Minnesota days have dawned grey and hazy, like today. Aurora and Robert are still asleep, and I'm waiting to take a shower. We're going to eat fast breakfasts--or possibly no breakfast at all--and then be met by Mom and Dad and Judy, Mitch, and Lexie. The eight of us will distribute ourselves among two cars and go to the Minnesota State Fair for the day then, so there will be plenty of food even if we miss breakfast here. Supposedly, this was where good old Teddy Roosevelt gave his "Speak softly and carry a big stick" speech once, so the thing about food at the Fair is that everything is on a stick--even, according to the newspapers, macaroni and cheese and deep-fried Twinkies. We'll stay for most of the day, but at least Judy's car has to be back at Mike's house by 4:00 to go to a baseball games. I personally am very excited about the milking demo booth--oh, to get to milk my own cow! [I eventually did get to milk the cow--photo is above left!] I'm wearing socks with sheep on them to get into the agricultural spirit of the event.

20 PM

We are back after an exciting day at the Fair. Mom and Dad rode over with the kids in their car, and Judy and Robert and I in hers, though when we got close to the Fair and realized that parking was $5 if you had fewer than four people in your car and free if you had four or more, we kidnapped Mitch out of Mom and Dad's car so that we would both qualify for free parking. [At right are all three kids.]

The Minnesota State Fair is said to be the second-largest in the country, only after Texas. We never did get to see displays of prize-winning jams, jellies, pies, and cakes--the way I always imagined a State Fair--but everything else so far exceeded our expectations that we were very, very happy. (Uncle Frank, in retrospect, couldn't recall ever seeing pies and cakes, and began to doubt that they even had such exhibits.) We entered the Fair and rode a chair lift to the middle of the park, where we promptly ate a giant corn dog (on a stick) and made our way through the Kidway, letting the three kids pick the rides they wanted to go on. Then, buying a caramel apple (on a stick), we walked over to the Space Tower, which Lexie desperately wanted to ride. Next, it was on to the animals--we walked through the whole cow barn, admiring the many beautiful, glossy-coated, sometimes blue-spotted, fat and sleeping cows. We found the milking demo right on schedule, and everyone except Robert and my mother took a turn milking a cow. We got to see the Dairy Princess of Minnesota, or something equally odd, up close and personally explaining cows to us, and the cow we were milking came from her father's dairy. The udders felt leathery, which I guess makes sense, since leather does come from cows, but was somewhat surprising to me. And getting the milk to come out straight was quite difficult! I stood in line behind a gaggle of little kids and waited my turn, and earned my multicolored ribbon, proclaiming, "I milked a cow at the Minnesota State Fair!" which I wore in my hair for the rest of the day.

After cows, we decided to get some food--sno-cones for the kids, all-you-can-drink milk for $.50 each for Robert, Lexie, and Mitch, a coneful of chocolate chip cookies to go with the milk, two huge, perfectly seasoned pork chops (on a stick), a chicken breast (on a stick), fresh-squeezed lemonade, Minnesota apple cider, freshly-spun vanilla cotton candy (on a stick), Australian deep-fried potato slices with ranch and cheese sauces, and cheese on a stick (on a stick): gooey, melty, American cheese in a corn-dog batter. We enjoyed everything--the cheese on a stick and the pork chops were the best, but everything was good. When we got home and related our day, we were told that we'd missed deep-fried cheese curds, which were supposed to be very good, and that the all-you-can-drink milk used to be only $.10 when Mark, Jerry, and Brian were young. I investigated the deep-fried Twinkies, only to find out that they were a rumor started by a TV station. If we'd had more time, we would've also tried the s'mores, the taffy, and the chocolate cows (on a stick).

Unfortunately, Judy got a headache and started feeling very ill soon after the cows, and didn't get to enjoy any of the food. Robert drove her and Mitch home just after 1pm, doing his best with the stick-shift Rodeo. "Thanks, Bob," his mother said, "Your driving managed to take my mind off my headache."

Mom, Dad, and I took charge of the two little girls, buying them root beers and a few more rides in the Kidway. After a test-run on some playground equipment, they were starting to get on each other's nerves a little bit, so we decided to call it a day. We rode the sky chair back to the end of the park again, managing to time it perfectly so that we could see the parade, complete with Clydesdales and marching bands and volunteer fire departments. We dropped Lexie off at Uncle Mike's and picked up Robert. It had been a lovely day at the Fair, and Mitch and Lexie were perfect kids, very sweet to be around and to get to know a little better. Back at Mark and Vanessa's, we met up with everyone else. Bill, Uncles Frank and Mike, and Mark, Jerry, and Brian had all gone golfing that morning, to help celebrate Jerry's birthday and Brian's being about to leave for college (Gustavus Adolphus in a week). Everyone had eaten on different schedules, after golf, after work, etc., so just Mom, Dad, Robert, and I were ready for an early dinner. Mark wasn't feeling well, so he stayed home for the evening, and Vanessa took Aurora out to see "Spy Kids II" while the four of us went into downtown Minneapolis to go to Murray's Steakhouse.

We got a 6:00 reservation for four, and ended up having one of the nicest dinners ever. Dad got a bone-in filet mignon and Robert, Mom, and I split the four-pound Porterhouse steak, the Golden Butterknife Special, for three people. The steak was buttery and flavorful and wonderful--we demolished all but about three small slices of it, which we delivered to Mark at home later. The atmosphere was elegant, with violin and piano music, and a nice dining room. Desserts were equally good--a spectacular angel pie (lemon meringue pie with the meringue as the crust, and whipped cream piped on top of the lemon layer), maple-walnut-caramel ice cream sundae, and mixed-berry shortcake.

After dinner, we said goodnight to Uncle Frank and Aunt Martha and came home to put Aurora to bed. Now we're sitting in the living room with Mark, Vanessa, and cousin Gina watching "A Walk to Remember" and making sarcastic comments.

Tomorrow we get to get up at 3:30 in the morning to put Aurora, Mom and Dad on the plane to Chicago. They're going to meet Aunt Loretta for breakfast when they land there, and then she's going to drop Aurora home while Mom and Dad get their connecting plane to New York. Meanwhile, we'll be on our way to California, for Part II of our 2002 Vacation.

So. . . .westward, ho!

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Created: 9/06/02. Last modified: 9/06/02.