Many Homes

Sunset in Napaskiak
It’s about 1am the night before we leave the village. The sky is finally dark, but not for long, and I lay in bed, unable to sleep. Three years have come down to a flurry of cleaning and packing and tearful goodbyes. 

I hate saying goodbye. But, I love new adventures, and the two go hand in hand. I have learned to laugh through the tears and embrace the whole range of emotions I feel each time we embark on some new adventure. 

I’ve been so lucky to call so many places home. I’ve never been one to like living out of a suitcase. Even in hotels, I love to unpack and really make wherever I am for the moment feel like home. Napaskiak has been home for me longer than anywhere else since my childhood home in New York. Leaving here has been hard. Every picture I took off the wall, every drawer I emptied brought that tightness in my throat. I’ve been so busy with trying to coordinate all the details to move a family and dog back to the Lower 48 that I haven’t had too much time to get excited about my next adventure. 

Sunset in Roanoke, VA:

Sunset in Roanoke

We don’t have an apartment yet, but we will be visiting later in the summer to see my brother and sister-in-law who live there, and hopefully we will find something on that trip. I think having that concrete will really help me get excited. 

I’m not sure we will move again in the future, but then again, we didn’t ever think we would move to Alaska either. I’d be happy to settle down for a while though, and watch my baby grow up in a place he can come to love and call home like I did. My childhood home holds such a strong place in my heart. I hated it as a teen and couldn’t wait to leave after high school, but now I find it is a great place to visit family and spend time. There was so much there that I took for granted as a kid, but I don’t think I would have been able to see that if I hadn’t left. In fact, one of the most important things I have learned is the real importance of family and how the people will always be more important than the physical location you inhabit. In fact, it may seem odd to you reading this, but even though we will be a nine hour drive from my hometown when we move to Roanoke, I am downright giddy at the thought of being able to just jump in my car and see my parents’ faces in less than a day. To be once again easily connected to the people I love makes all the complications of packing worth it. 


Although we will wave goodbye to Napaskiak tomorrow as we fly away, this tiny village will always hold a big piece of my heart. Watching my baby be embraced by a loving community was a priceless thing that I will miss. His babbled conversations with staff at the school as they taught him Yupik bring a smile to my face even now. Thank you to everyone who has welcomed us and embraced our little family that grew so much here. I look back at the person I was stepping off the plane with my husband three years ago, and I can’t believe how much has changed. I was told that we wouldn’t regret taking the leap of faith to move 4,000 miles to a world so different than anything we had ever experienced before, and I can honestly say that I don’t regret it for a second. Thanks, Napaskiak.  ❤

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Cycles


Springtime is quickly approaching rural Alaska. Tickets for the Kuskokwim Ice Classic are being sold and bets placed for the exact date and time of the breakup of ice on the river. It’s a time of year that brings longer hours of sunlight and long walks through the village. This year it also brings a tinge of sadness. 

We have made the decision to leave Alaska at the end of this school year. I’m actually tearing up writing this, and it won’t have been the first time I’ve cried. But this sadness alone isn’t enough to change my mind. Life happens in cycles, and this one is just coming to an end for us. 

We are leaving for a multitude of reasons, so it can be difficult to name any single reason. Our original plan was to only come for two years. Then that changed to five. And now, we have realized that three was our ‘goldilocks just right’. Just about five years ago, Nathan and I took our pre marriage counciling class. When asked about what we saw for our future we excitedly listed our dreams and schemes (none of which included Alaska- and yet…). The priest stopped us and said, ‘You guys are planners.’ He didn’t mean it as a compliment. At the time I didn’t see how it was a negative, but now, I can’t imagine how different our lives would be without being able to let go of our carefully made plans and trust that if we put in the work, God will lead us where we need to be. 

Living in Napaskiak has really taught me to let go of so much that was holding me back before. You can’t plan everything in life, and it’s more enjoyable to roll with the punches- because otherwise you just fall down. We are leaving this place, but we will be vastly different (and hopefully better!) people for having lived here. 

We don’t know where we will end up after this. We are shipping everything back to my parents’ house where the things we didn’t take to Alaska are stored. Nathan is going on interviews, but no job offer has been made yet. It’s still early for schools to be hiring, so we are trying  to relax and trust that we will find a way. It was terrifying to take the step to move 4,000 miles to Alaska, but it seems equally difficult to try and find our footing back in the lower 48. Prayers and good vibes for this next cycle in our lives are greatly appreciated! 

Now comes the cleaning, and the packing, and the selling, and the shipping! Here we go! 

Building a School in Rural Alaska: A Photo Journey

Over the past two years construction crews have been working day and night in all types of weather to construct the beautiful new school we have moved into this past month. I have taken photos during the process and wanted to share them with everyone. Sadly the river view I had out my apartment window when we moved here is gone, but once I stepped foot in the new building that is blocking the way I knew it was worth it.

Enjoy the photos!

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To read a great article about the new school opening check out some great local coverage of the day-long festivities!

 

PFDs and Full Freezers

A full freezer is a happy freezer!

Almost 100 pounds of meat flew in on a tiny bush plane this weekend, with our name on it! I was excited to receive our first PFD this year. The PFD (Permanent Fund Distribution)is money given out each year to every qualifying Alaska resident. It stems from the fact that Alaska is an owner-state, and each resident receives benefits of profits off the land. Oil money goes into the fund and dividends are distributed yearly. You have to have lived in Alaska for at least one full calendar year, and be able to prove your residency before applying. So for teachers who move in August, it takes until your third school year to actually receive any benefits.

Many Alaskans (especially out in the bush) hunt, so their main supply of meat is wild game including moose and caribou among other things. Neither my husband or I hunt, (although he always talks about wanting to go- he just has to find the time!) so we either bring meat in with us in frozen luggage on Alaska Airlines, or we have to order it from a store to be flown in freight. This is an expensive option, as you have to buy in bulk, but it is certainly easier than packing and hauling coolers from the East Coast or Anchorage when we are visiting.

Last year I ordered from Span Alaska, and while there was no problem with that order, I found that ordering from Mike’s Quality Meats in Eagle River was cheaper. For those interested in numbers I have included the invoice below:

Yes you read that right. Shipping and handling is more than half the cost of the meat itself. Welcome to the Alaskan bush. Overall, I was pretty happy though. We got a large variety of meat for about $4/lb, and they gave us a bigger turkey than what was listed on the order form. Thanksgiving will be good this year!

The absolute best part of this though? I placed our order on Thursday when the PFD’s were distributed, and it arrived- wait for it- SATURDAY. Like, in the same week! It was at least a two week wait with Span Alaska, and ordering anything from Amazon is at least a week, sometimes up to a month for larger items. I couldn’t believe it when we got the call that our freight was on it’s way to the village.

When we decide to move back down to the Lower 48, it’s going to be nice to just walk into a grocery store and pick up whatever I want for dinner that night, but I do think I will miss the great feeling of having a full freezer. It’s like having the grocery store right at home! Do any of you shop in bulk? What is your favorite part about it? I would love to hear from you in the comments!

 

9 Essentials for Living in the Alaskan Bush

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A dog sled team training on the frozen Kuskokwim River

Now that we have lived here a couple years I find myself echoing some of the same advice to new teachers each fall. We learned the hard way, and I hope that the information I’ve collected here can help someone in the future avoid some of our mistakes. Albeit, most of our mistakes have turned into great stories, (like how you should ALWAYS choose priority shipping, or you will end up with a fridge containing only Jello and wild caught salmon) but they didn’t seem so funny at the time.

I’ve compiled a list of ‘essentials’ for anyone thinking of making the move to rural Alaska. Now, most of these I think would be pretty universal, but remember that Alaska is a HUGE state- and has a lot of diversity in its land. Make sure you do your research and ask questions about the specific location you will be moving to. We live in the Kuskokwim Delta of South West Alaska, and it is vastly different from say, the Northern Slope.

 

Essential #1: Good Quality Winter Gear

Don’t wait until you are here to get your winter gear. Cold weather comes early, and especially if you come from a more temperate climate, you are going to want that heavy coat sooner than others. Your winter gear needs to be from head to toe. Wind chills are intense and frostbite is a real threat. Think, Hat, Balaclava or face cover, Scarf, Heavy Coat (longer is better!), Snowpants or Snowskirt (my personal favorite!), wool socks and good snow boots.

If you haven’t had to buy good quality gear before, the price tags can be a little scary, but don’t skimp- try and shop sales, or if you know far enough ahead of time, see if you can get anything from last season. Online you can find great quality stuff from Lands End (my favorite) LLBean, or REI. There are also several stores in Anchorage that ship to the Bush and have a great selection.

 

Essential #2: Ice Cleats

Where we are at there is a ton of ice, and in the winter there is no plowing, so Ice Cleats are essential for walking anywhere in the village. We decided to skip the cheap elastic type pairs at a neighbor’s suggestion and got the heavy duty “Stabil-icers”. It has been worth every penny. They have held up great for two winters getting daily use. And when you have to go out and walk the dog multiple times a day they are a lifesaver. I had fallen several times in the week before they came in the mail, and not once since.

 

Essential #3: Good Rain Boots

The last clothing essential would be good rain boots. There is a lot of debate about brands, but really you just want to avoid the cheap pairs that will split after a few uses. It rains a lot in the spring (and right now in the fall!) and at least in South West Alaska that means mud- and lots of it. I literally only wear my rain boots and winter boots outside in Alaska. I have other shoes I keep at the school, but I avoid wearing them outside. Not everyone does this, but I have found I have to clean my shoes a lot less, and it is much simpler.

 

Essential #4: Blackout Curtains

Regardless of where you live in Alaska, there will be days where the sun is out longer than you want to be awake. Blackout curtains for at least your bedroom are lifesavers. I have them in every window in our apartment and try to close them before it gets too late, otherwise it is so easy to find yourself still awake and full of energy at 1am.

 

Essential #5: Candles/Lantern

Electricity isn’t always a given in the Bush. It can go in and out, and especially in the winter time you want to have alternate sources of light. We have multiple candles as well as a couple battery powered lanterns that have gotten a lot of use.

 

Essential #6: Extra Water

The water situation is different everywhere you go, but we have learned that it is important to have extra water at all times. We have piped water, but when things break it can be days before they are fixed or a part comes in. So we have containers with extra water for drinking as well as non-potable water for other uses.

 

Essential #7: Alaska Airlines Credit Card

While not strictly essential, you would be hard pressed to find someone out here who doesn’t take advantage of this card. Travel is expensive and airline miles are gold. In addition to miles you also earn an annual companion fare for only $99 plus tax. You pay an annual fee for the card, but it is more than worth it to us.

 

Essential #8: Amazon Prime

Another negotiable essential, but with recent changes to shipping rates for almost every company out there, Amazon Prime is becoming more and more my one stop shop for everything. Prime doesn’t guarantee two day shipping to us, but it does send priority, which means we get things in about a week if all goes well.

 

Essential #9: A Good Sense of Humor and Laid Back Attitude

Things are always in flux when traveling and living in the Bush. I was a serious type A personality prior to moving here, and it hasn’t always been easy, but relaxing my attitude and remembering to laugh has made this whole experience a lot more enjoyable.

 

Like I said before, Alaska is an extremely diverse state and not everywhere in the Bush is identical, so needs vary. What are some things that you have found to be essential? Did I miss anything? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

 

*I have not been compensated by any of the brands mentioned, I just seriously love their products! As with everything, you can take my opinions with a grain of salt.

Shasta Taiko Japanese Drum Group

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Shasta Tyco at the school in Napaskiak

If life in the Bush has taught me anything, it is to be flexible and spontaneous. Nathan came home for lunch on Monday and told me about a really great Japanese drumming group that had preformed at Cama-i (an annual dance festival in Bethel- read more about it Here) and that they had just given a performance at the school. They were going to have a second show in less than an hour, and he thought I should go.

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I wasn’t dressed, and neither was the baby, but I didn’t hesitate, and I’m glad for it. The performance was amazing. It was really cool to see a family rediscovering their cultural heritage, and having do much fun at the same time.

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It was more than just drumming. Each song has a cultural significance and story behind it that they shared. And they moved like they were dancing or fighting.

The kids favorite had to be the lion song. We were told that if you were bit by a lion you would have good luck for the rest of your life. The kids went crazy and stood up, ask hoping to be bit!

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The lion in the audience

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The lion dancing

Baby boy liked the drums too. Since people were worried that it might be too loud, but he was happy, and not scared at all. He even feel asleep half way through the performance and slept soundly in his carrier. Hooray for baby wearing!

I love to see people across cultures sharing their heritage. It reminds you just how vast the world is, and that even though people are different, you can learn from them, and maybe even find something in common. We all have the same ancestral roots after all.

If you are interested in learning more about the Shasta Taiko group, you can check out their website Here!

Winter Walks

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Ravens Flying Over the Boardwalk

Alaska winters are long and dark. I’m always looking forward to the time of year when the days are getting longer, and the temperatures are rising enough to go outside for more than just a few minutes. The past week has had some really nice days where I could do just that. Winter walks are some of my favorite. You experience the vastness of the world in a different way after being cooped up inside all winter. The crisp air bites your face, but it feels fresh and exciting, and as long as you wear your ice cleats, you can really go anywhere!

Winter Walks Selfie

I’ve taken several walks now, strapping the baby into his carrier and bundling him under one of my husband’s coats. I’m worried about him getting chilled, but after each walk he has been toasty warm- kept so by my own body heat. I don’t know how people live without baby wearing, it is seriously a lifesaver, and one of my favorite things. You have a happy cuddly baby, and you can continue to actually do things- it’s a win-win!

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Sammy, our dog, has enjoyed these walks as well. I feel bad for her being cooped up in the winter as well. We take her out multiple times a day, but when temperatures are below zero, we hardly want to go trekking on an adventure, so she settles for running around the apartment for her exercise (sorry downstairs neighbors!)

Winter Walks Sammy

Winter is far from over yet, but I think the worst is over. Tickets for the river breakup are being sold. Nathan and I have decided to try and guess this year. Last year we didn’t buy any tickets, but his guess was off by only a day. Essentially the idea is that people buy tickets to guess the day and time that the river ice will break up. They have a tripod set up in Bethel on the ice, with a rope leading to a timer. When the tripod collapses, it pulls the rope, stopping the timer. People from all over the delta try to guess the exact date and time. Whoever has the closest guess wins the prize of $10,000. Talk about an awesome opportunity!

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Last Years Tripod on the River

I’m looking forward to the warmer weather and longer walks. As the boardwalks clear up, I will be able to take off my heavy boots and cleats, and the longer days will let us take walks after dinner. I can’t wait!

 

Do you ever take winter walks? Where are your favorite places to explore? Share with me below in the comments!

Shopping and Shipping

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The closest grocery store in Bethel

The question I get asked the most about living in the Bush is “How do you do your shopping?” Without a major grocery store in our village, and the unreliability of goods at our small local store, I’ve had to get pretty creative in my food shopping.
Despite reading every blog I could find about living in Rural Alaska, I still made some mistakes early on that resulted in some weird dinners. When all you have in your kitchen is fresh salmon, Jello and some canned goods, you certainly aren’t going to starve, but meals can be a little disjointed.

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Expensive fruit in our Hub Town, Bethel

Now that I’ve lived here for almost two years, I’ve gotten into a good groove, and explored a lot of options. Some of them were really great, and others not so much. Which methods do I use the most?

1. Amazon Prime
The bulk of my everyday shopping happens on Amazon. Prime has been a lifesaver. We learned early on that if you don’t ship something via priority mail, it can take up to a month to get to you in the village, because it comes in by a hovercraft from Anchorage (no joke!). If you can wait, and plan ahead, you can save by mailing things yourself, but my Prime membership has paid for itself over and over again in shipping costs.
Just a note- two day shipping takes about a week out here, but it is still the fastest option.

2. Walmart.com
Walmart changed its shipping policy to now ship free if you buy more than $50 worth of items. I turned to them after Amazon took my favorite flour brand off of Prime. I was happy a friend told me about this, because it was a lifesaver- you get to pay Walmart prices, and they ship for free. I also bought some stuff for the baby, and a few basics for the kitchen. They shipped separately, but I got all of my orders in the span of a couple weeks, which is pretty good for out here.

3. Walmart Bush Orders
If you are spending some time in Anchorage, and have the ability to get to the Diamond Center Walmart (don’t make the mistake of going to the one near Benson and A street!), they have a really great service for those who live in the Bush. Basically, you fill your cart with everything you want, roll it to the back of the store, and the bush department takes care of the rest!
You can pay by card, or opt for cash on delivery. They charge a 10% fee to package everything for you, and you also pay for shipping. We’ve done this a couple of times, and I’ve been super happy with it. Now with the changes on Walmart.com shipping I might not use this as often, but it’s still a pretty solid option.
There are a few things they won’t ship for you based on USPS regulations, so double check those before you shop or throw those items in your airline luggage, but for the most part you can get anything you need!

4. Flat Rate Shipping- Canned Goods
We travel down to the Lower 48 to visit family twice a year. And during that time, I always make sure to have a big shopping trip for canned goods. I shop at Aldi where I can buy things by the case, and nobody looks at me too funny. My sister always likes to come with me because it amuses her when I debate about whether I want one or two cases of something. I usually spend about $100-$200 on canned goods that will last us until the next time we come home.
Then I pack them all into the flat rate priority boxes from the USPS. Based on weight, I really make out on this deal. Essentially it doubles the price of each can- but when you can pay discount supermarket prices, it is still cheaper than buying canned goods at the village store, or even in Bethel. I print my own shipping labels to save even more, and then schedule a pick up from the post office and I don’t even have to lug the boxes further than the porch- win!

5. Checked Luggage
When we travel on Alaska Airlines we get two free checked bags each as Alaska Residents (Yay Club 49!) so we usually have a tote or two with fresh groceries from the Lower 48 or Anchorage. You can also check a cooler in their frozen section, (we have a great one on wheels) and as long as they are under 50lbs, they travel just like any other luggage.

Not everything I’ve tried has been a great success. Some methods I’ve tried, but don’t really like:
1. Mailbox Groceries/Expediters
We used an expediter once- and I swear never again. It was by far the most expensive option we have tried. My husband bought some things in bulk at Sams Club in Anchorage. They don’t have bush orders the way Walmart does though. He purchased the items, they kept them at the store, and he arranged a pick up with an expediter after he left. Basically you pay someone to pick up your items, package them, and then you pay priority shipping on top of that. If you are really crunched for time, and need something that you can’t get anywhere else, it may be worth it. Expediters will shop for you too, if you aren’t in town. Of course there are extra charges for that as well. But if you need multiple things from multiple stores in Anchorage, it’s like having your own personal shopper!

2. Span Alaska Sales
It’s not that I don’t like Span Alaska; their customer service is amazing, they deliver fast, and they are Alaska owned and operated, but they just tend to be more expensive than other options. I usually check their paper catalog first and then compare prices online. If you want to save time it’s great for a big bulk order- especially since they include shipping in the prices already (except for frozen)- you are just going to end up paying a little more. Since I now am a stay at home mom, I have the time to dedicate to finding the absolute lowest price.

And of course I do still buy things at the local store when they are in stock, and I’m in a bind, or my husband will pick up fruits and veggies when he is at an inservice in Bethel and can hit the real grocery store.
I think about the days of just stopping in to the store quickly to pick something up for dinner after work when we lived in Philly, and I miss it a lot, but I’ve learned to plan ahead, and get a lot more creative and flexible with my cooking, so there are some upsides!

 

If you live in the bush, what is your favorite way to shop? Anything I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments!

New Store!

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The New Store. It’s so much bigger than the old one.

This past week was extremely exciting here in the village. Our new store celebrated it’s grand opening, and I was positively giddy. I’m sure it’s my ‘small town’ showing, but I couldn’t wait to set foot in the new building and do some shopping. The store is bigger, brighter, and full of so many amazing things that we couldn’t get in town before. Prices are still really high, but it’s nice t know that if I really need something I don’t have to wait a few weeks for Amazon to deliver it.

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The old store

Oh- and I had eggs for the first time since being in Anchorage back in September. I have been using powdered eggs for baking, but they are no good to eat by themselves. I can’t tell you how great it was to see that cooler stocked full!

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The whole aisle of candy and snacks was my favorite!

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Fully stocked and beautiful!

The new store is further away from our house now, but the longer walk is totally worth it.

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Nathan overwhelmed by all the choices for jam!

Throw Party and Baby’s Yupik Name

Hello internet! It’s been a couple of crazy weeks since I last wrote. I was a little bit busy having a baby, and learning how to keep him alive while only half awake myself. Fortunately I had my amazing mother fly all the way out to Alaska, first to Anchorage and then out to the village with my husband, new baby and I. It has been a hazy time filled with laughter, tears, and clichés. 🙂

Introducing Baby Emmett, born 9/19 in Anchorage AK at 7lbs 5oz.

Introducing Baby Emmett, born 9/19 in Anchorage AK at 7lbs 5oz.

I never expected anyone from my family to come visit us out in the bush. In fact, for the most part, I don’t recommend it. There isn’t much to do out here, and with the price of airline tickets I think it’s a much better idea to meet up somewhere tropical. However, with the birth of her first grandchild, my mother would have it no other way and I was so relieved to have her here, guiding my husband and I through those crazy first days.

Mom left the village today, starting her almost day and a half journey through five different airports back to New York. I’m really sad to see her go, but know that we will visit again over Christmas, and really I call her almost every day anyway!

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While she was here I was excited to share not only the new baby but also some of the local culture with her. We were fourtuante enough to attend a feast in the village on Sunday. This feast was held for two of the boys who had their first moose this year. I was very excited for them, as they are some of my favorite kids in the village, and it is always nice to go to a happy feast.

While we were there, Baby Emmett received his Yupik name. Both my husband and I received Yupik names last year, and knew that it was only a matter of time before baby got one as well. His Yupik name was passed down to him from a girl who passed away last month. Her family member was so filled with joy to see a new baby to give the name to, and it really touched me as well. I think it is amazing to keep names alive in this way, and really honor those who have come before us. It is a way of keeping in touch with those we lose. His given name is Anguuq (pronounced like ung-ook). It doesn’t have a ‘meaning’ or English translation, but I love it, and all the history behind it.

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After the feast, the family was having a ‘throw party’. Throw parties are more of a coastal village tradition that goes hand in hand with seal hunting, so I had never attended one. I was excited to share this new experience with my mom. It was cold and started to rain icy pellets from the sky part way through, but it was still a good time.

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The two boys kicked off the event by tossing out stuffed moose to the women gathered below. Only women participate in the throw. After they tossed those out, they began throwing all sorts of other items off the roof. It was exciting, and a little dangerous (have you ever had a package of clothespins thrown at you? They hurt to catch with half frozen hands!) but I had a great time. All the items thrown are useful in some way, especially when you don’t have access to larger stores. Plates, socks, wash clothes, cups, cooking utensils, and laundry baskets among other things rained down with the sleet.

The things mom and I caught.

The things mom and I caught.

Waiting to begin!

Waiting to begin!

Overall, I think my mom had a good couple of weeks visiting, and we will miss her a lot- and not just because she did my laundry!