Letter to Oksana and Granny, 2015 edition

Dear Oksana (& Granny Valentina),

On your birthday/Thanksgiving week, I’m writing you with your annual update about our girl. Only, this year, I’m writing to you and Granny. We just found out that she passed away last month, on October 7th. I wish we could have seen her again before losing her … although family and friends are, of course, reminding me to be thankful that we had our time together back in 2013, and I am. If there’s a world beyond this one, I know that the two of you are together, and I’m thankful for that too.

So, here’s a photo of the girl and the boy, since Granny V counted them both as hers whenever she would write to us:


Arina is, of course, holding a turtle — because, if there’s an animal to be found, she’ll find it and hold it. Note the attire: a gift from a friend of a friend, who works at a railroad — because, yep, Jack still loves trains. And Arina pretends to be annoyed by his little obsessions, but secretly loves them too and is just as eager to play dress-up as he is.

They’re at what will be my parents’ retirement home by a lake. We’re in the process of renovating it now. How appropriate is it that in its former life it was … a. train. depot?


We still have a lot of work to do, but hopefully I’ll be able to post photos of the finished product in next year’s update. Till then, the kids think the renovation project is the best.


Other adventures from the past year include:


bringing down the racist flag from our statehouse grounds (since A&J seem to think they managed this single-handedly);


traveling (Texas for A., Pennsylvania for me&J, Canada for me&S, and Georgia & NC for us all);


trick-or-treating as a pair (yes! at 11-years & 6-years they *still* indulge me in this way);


and learning, b/c we’re full-scale homeschool now, and loving it … although: note to self … I must do a better job of updating our learning blog. In the above photo, Arina and Scott explore the science of cooking.

A busy year … and we wish you both were here. Even though we didn’t talk to Granny as much as we would have liked to, the world was a happier place just knowing she was in it. And now it’s sadder, which means we’ll try twice as hard to make it a better place, in her honor. XO



The Fisk Family 2014, in quotes

Arina xmas

Me, after finding candy wrappers in A’s drawer (including TWO wrappers from my Ghirardelli dark chocolate&caramel Xmas present): “I have to be able to trust you not to sneak candy. Why are you sneaking candy?”
Arina: “I’m afraid if I ask you’ll say no.”
Me: “Why don’t we come up with a system where you earn candy? — like if you do your chores, you automatically get some candy?”
Arina: “Okay.”
Me: “But sometimes I feel like I can’t even have candy in the house, because if I do, you’ll just find it and take it whenever you want.”
Arina: “Yeah. Good point.”

Harry Potter SPOILER, below . . .
Me, to Arina: “We do not respond to Dobby’s death with: ‘that’s so sad! At least we still have Kreacher.’ In this house, we respond to Dobby’s death with hysterical sobbing on the floor.”

Me, confiscating the Ipad: “No, Jack. You can’t watch the Minecraft Train guy on Youtube. He says bad words.”
Jack: “NO HE DOESN’T!”
Me: “And then you’ll say bad words.”
Jack: “NO I WON’T!”
Me: “Yes you will. You’re 4 years old. You’ll just say all the words, because you don’t even know what the bad words are yet.”
Jack: “YES I DO! — oh crap and broken train!”

No power + a gas stove = Scott calling to remind me to stand back when I strike the match.

Arina, to Jack: “Do you remember the password to my room?”
Jack: “Horses.”
Me, to Jack: “What’s the password to your room?”
Jack: “Trains.”
Me: “That’s not a very good password, Jack, because everyone will know it. You should be more specific, like: a type of train.”
Jack: “Box car-passenger car-oil car-diesel train.”

Jack xmas

Arina, in response to a creative writing assignment: “I can’t do this.”
Scott, frustrated: “This is all you EVER do. You LOVE to make up answers rather than look up stuff in a book. And now you’re finally ALLOWED to do it, and you say you CAN’T.”
Arina: “You and Mom TOLD me that I HAVE to look up my answers in a book. I guess I learned my lesson.”

Me, as I disconnect Jack from the Internet: “Okay. That’s it. The Minecraft Train guy said a bad word.”
Jack: “But, I was just about to tell you not to say it!”

Me, to Scott: “So, someone told Mom that they keep up with me via Facebook, and Mom said, ‘yeah: some people like her; some people don’t.’ I don’t know what to think about being prefaced.”
Scott, to me: “We all have to preface you, Nicole.”

Scott, to Arina: “No, you can not ‘be done’ with your schoolwork. You have to finish the work you missed during the week, and yesterday I gave you the entire afternoon off to play.”
Arina: “Well, you shouldn’t have given me the entire afternoon off to play then. That’s not my fault.”

Just logged into A’s school email to check for a message from her teacher and found the following, subject line: “Hi its me”
Message: “Hi its [boy’s name] from past testing, the guy you sat next to.”
I think my 4th grade girl picked up a 4th grade boy during state standardized testing.

Arina bowling

Scott’s text to me: will be late
My text to Scott: arschloch
Because after listening to the audio version of that beautiful and heartbreaking book that is The Book Thief, this Saumensch and Saukerl have mastered the art of German cursing.

Jack, relating a recent conversation with his great-grandmother: “PaPa Jack was MaMa Shirley’s friend. She told me.”
Actually, he was her husband, but what Jack took from that conversation seems sweeter.

Jack, crying in the car: “But Clara didn’t say goodbye to me!”
Me: “It was raining, Jack. She said ‘bye’ to all of us.”
Jack: “But I wanted my OWN goodbye!”
Me: “You didn’t want Claire to get wet! She would have gotten wet if she had said bye to each of us.”
Jack: “Not if she had given me my goodbye before she got out of the car!”

Arina: “And when I go to McBee on Wednesday . . .”
Me: “I don’t know if you’re going to McBee on Wednesday. Nana needs a break.”
Arina: “Oh. That makes sense.”

Mom, to Jack, who was complaining loudly: “Jack! — the bank teller didn’t have to give you a lollipop at all. It isn’t polite to complain, b/c you don’t like the color.”
Jack: “No! I wanted chicken nuggets!”

Jack bowling 2

Me to Jack: “You don’t scream when you’re frustrated with your game! Do you hear me? I’ll take it away.”
Jack: “I don’t want to hear you. I wish I couldn’t hear you.”

Arina: “Hey, Mom? There’s this song they play at the skating rink that I really, really like . . . something about a wrecking ball.”

Jack, in his whiniest voice: “I wish outside had an air conditioner.”

Fellow traveler in the Amtrak lounge, Chicago station: “The train is always an adventure but must be even more so with kids.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Him: “Last night, I was in my room and heard this kid screaming over and over again: ‘I DON’T WANT TO TAKE A SHOWER!'”
Me: “Yeah — that was ours. We thought that a shower on a train would be more appealing to him, but: no.”

Arina: “Mom: you were 70% fun on our trip.”


Dinner experiences on the train are fun, b/c if you’re a party of two, they match you with another party of two for full table seating.
Keith (of Bob and Keith from Wisconsin) to me: “You know — I had an idea in my mind of people from South Carolina, and I have to say that you’re *nothing* like that.”

Phone call from Casey Carroll:
Casey: “Where are you?”
Me: “Happy wedding day! Great news — I’m somewhere in Washington state!”
Everything is under control.

Me: “I missed you, Arina! You’re such a big help with Jack! It’s hard to believe I went across the country without you.”
Arina: “Yeah . . . well, at least he made it.”

Casey: “Jack was a hit at the wedding. Someone asked me who he belonged to, and I said: ‘See that table over there? He belongs to the woman who is with him the least.'”
Me: “You know me well. I was even more ready for a break than I normally am after days of uninterrupted motherhood on a train.”
Casey: “I know, love. Why do you think I assigned you to a table with a ready-made baby support staff?”

Scott’s been “reading” the audio book version of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.
I just got the following email from him:
“So they did a research study. They observed family interactions and tested the saliva of each family member after certain points in the day. After the father received 45 minutes of alone time, the rate of the stress hormone cortisol was reduced. They tested the mother’s cortisol after 45 minutes of alone time. It did not go down.
What made it go down? Watching her husband do chores.”

Jack and Jasper

Arina to me&Scott: “Pop has an Elvis ring tone.”
Scott: “Who is Elvis, Arina?”
A: “You know . . . a singer . . . he was in that Hawaii movie.”
Me to Scott: “Elvis *was* in a lot of movies, and I think one was called Blue Hawaii . . .”
A: “No — it was called Lilo and Stitch.”

Scott, while checking himself out at the mirror: “You know — you’d think that girls would go for guys with freckles. I mean: we’re like leopards. But we don’t get any credit for them.”

At Silver Dollar City
Arina: “Roger, is it okay if Jack and I go play while you finish eating?”
Roger: “No.”
Arina: “Why not?”
Roger: “Because, baby, we don’t know who all these people are. There may be republicans.”

Me to Jack, after leaving a wedding reception: “Why are you sad, Jack? Are you tired?”
Jack: “No. I’m sad, b/c when I get married, I won’t be able to play trains any more.”

Jack, as an anxiety-ridden mini-me (just now): Scott hands him a pair of scissors, b/c he’s trying to open something. Jack raises both hands and screams:
“NO! I need SAFETY scissors!”
Arina, as an anxiety-free mini-Scott (flashback to Oct. 2013, Kazakhstan trip): Six-year-old cousin Andrew pulls Uncle Yasha’s sleeve, speaking rapid Russian, after which Yasha runs outside.
Translator to us: “Apparently, Arina found an ax and is trying to chop firewood.”

Fisk family

Scott and I thoroughly enjoyed lunch and adult conversation with Alec and Michael. Hurrah for being in Holly Hill and an easy stop on the drive from Beaufort to Greenville. Apologies for Arina, who saw an opportunity for a Minecraft binge and interrupted with:
“Mom, can we play the Ipad? If ‘yes,’ we’ll leave you alone.”
^ negotiation accepted.

Scott to me, during a Fisk family game of softball: “It would be nice if the ball didn’t hit the ground before I can swing at it.”
Scott to A.: “Don’t throw ‘like a Nicole,’ Arina — b/c we don’t use the phrase ‘like a girl.'”
So, S. has replaced the negative image of girls&sports with the negative image of *me*&sports.

Scott, to Jack: “Did you make friends at the school picnic today?”
Jack: “No.”
Me: “He could have. A four-year-old boy wanted him to play on the slides, but Jack only wanted to run circles around the merry-go-round and pretend he was chasing a train.”
Scott, to Jack: “Sometimes you have to play the games your friends want to play.”
Jack: “Then I don’t really want friends.”

Me, to Jack: “You cannot have your train tattoo unless you eat your carrots.”
Jack: “I don’t like my carrots. I’ll find something else good-for-me.”
Two seconds later: “Are cinnamon rolls good-for-me?”

Arina, who is battling a cold and still going strong: “Nana thought I’d lose my voice. HA! I’ll lose my voice WHEN I DIE.”

Bedtime story

Scott: “So, the new guy at work called in today — his fiancee just had their first baby.”
Me: “Cool. Did he sound excited?”
Scott: “Yeah — he was weepy.”
Me: “Were you weepy with Arina or Jack?”
Scott: “No — I’m not the weepy sort. That probably bothers you.”
Me: “Not really — b/c you cried a little when Dobby died, and that’s what counts.”

Me: “Were you playing in Q’s pen?”
Arina: “No.”
Me: “But I looked out the window and *saw* you!”
A: “Then yes.”
Me: “Don’t lie to me! How often do you lie to me?”
A: “Whenever you catch me.”
Me: “No — you only *admit* to it when I catch you.”
A: “No — you *always* catch me.”
Me: “Then why do you still lie to me?”
A: “I don’t know. You’d think I’d learn my lesson.”

Scott to me: “No — you cannot have a pig. I mean, you could make an awesome book about it — but no.” Me: “All I just heard was that you think I should get a pig and write a book about it.”

Me, in an attempt to rescue Steph from *another* game of Candy Land: “It’s our turn! Adult time! We get Steph.”
Arina: “Then can I get Dan?”

Arina, to me, after I almost tossed the cinnamon roll icing: “Bad Mommy!”
Jack: “You don’t say bad Mommy, because Mommy’s a girl, and you never tell a girl that she did a bad job.”

Letter to Oksana, November 2014 edition

Dedicated to Oksana Vasilyevna Oksanich, 11-24-1974 to 2009

Dear Oksana,

I am three days late with my annual letter to you, since I always *try* to post this in honor of your birthday. It’s been my annual tradition, so appropriate for Thanksgiving, ever since I discovered you in 2011 (which was, sadly, too late for us to meet). I will always regret not trying to find you sooner. I will always be thankful that I found you in time to be able to enjoy your family, especially your mother, our Granny Valentina.

To continue with my theme of being late, though: I also missed updating the family blog on Arina’s Adoption Day this year, another annual tradition. I used to *love* Arina’s A-Day, as we call it, since it’s the anniversary of the day we became a family. But, honestly, eight years later: it feels like we’ve always been family — and I guess we have, even before we knew it.

In that spirit, I will update the family blog this year as my letter to you, and I have a feeling that this will become a new tradition. Before, I always used this opportunity to talk mainly — even only — about Arina, but that’s just silly. If what’s yours is mine, then what’s mine is yours. Your mother understands this; she calls both Arina and Jack her grandchildren. And I think you would understand and embrace this too.

So, an update on my/your 10-year-old daughter, who for her tenth birthday wanted a pink bike and a mohawk helmet . . .

1932297_10204228718422013_2799913379504532918_n. . . and my/your 5-year-old son, who for his fifth birthday wanted (what else?) a train.

Jack smiling

They’re quite the pair. I mean: they’ve dressed in matching Halloween outfits every. single. year. since Jack was born: 2010 as Little Bo Peep and her lamb; 2011 as Little Miss Muffet and her spider; 2012 as Elphaba and Chistery; 2013 as Harry Potter and Fawkes


2014? Harry Potter and Fluffy.

IMG_0126Yes. Harry Potter, two years in a row — because after 117 hours and 4 minutes of listening to the audiobooks (which we started in 2013), we finished the series this year. Arina said her favorite character was Harry. Jack said his favorite character was the Hogwarts Express.

Speaking of trains (which you kinda have to do *all* the time when Jack is around), we were on a lot of them this year:

IMG_0513I think our train-obsession, like so many other things in our life, comes partly from me and partly from you. Jack is hard-wired to like trains (my grandfather’s legacy), but I never thought of trains as a primary mode of transportation until Scott, Arina and I took one across Kazakhstan — because, no offense to your country, but traveling on the Soviet-era small planes there is terrifying. Traveling on Soviet-era trains, on the other hand, is delightful and inspired us to get an Amtrak credit card when we were back state-side. So, thanks for that.

One of my favorite photos of Arina from this year was snapped while on one of our train stops: Washington, D.C.

IMG_0701I love this photo, because it’s *so* Arina, as much as the photo with the mohawk helmet. She’s a fearless free spirit — someone who will throw on a bathing suit and jump in the middle of a fountain, whether other people are there or not.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, her happy-go-lucky confidence absolutely terrifies me. *My* personality is much more cautious, like Jack’s. I give you the most perfect illustration I’ve found of their competing personalities:

Jack, as an anxiety-ridden mini-me: Scott hands him a pair of scissors, because he’s trying to open something. Jack raises both hands and screams:

“NO! I need SAFETY scissors!” 

Arina, as an anxiety-free mini-Scott (flashback to Oct. 2013, Kazakhstan trip): Six-year-old cousin Andrew pulls Uncle Yasha’s sleeve, speaking rapid Russian, after which Yasha runs outside.

Translator to us: “Apparently, Arina found an ax and is trying to chop firewood.”

That said, I love them together — because Jack, who is not the bring-a-bathing-suit-and-jump-in-the-fountain type of guy, does this when he’s with his sister:

IMG_0613And Arina, who is not the stop-and-smell-the-roses (or the sea breeze) type of girl, does this when she’s with her brother:


So our children round each other out and make each other better — braver and kinder, just like you and yours have made me better. And for that, now and always, I’m thankful.

p.s. thanks, finally, to scott, who fixed the color on our trip-to-kazakhstan video, below. the trip was 2013, but we didn’t put together the video until 2014 . . . because, well, late is how we roll.

Fall/Winter 2013 and January 2014 Photo Gallery

I’ve discovered how to make digital photo collages, so no more vomiting photo after photo into a blog post. The wants-to-be-organized and always-pressed-for-time parts of me are thrilled. And let’s admit it: it really stinks to have to scroll down for what feels like forever. No more! Behold dozens of photos in nine nifty collages:

Collage #1: See, below, Fall 2012. Scott spent one Saturday morning raking leaves, and the kids had to jump in them. Jack insisted on wearing boots, but — having none — had to settle for wearing Arina’s. Also, Arina caught a fish a few Saturdays later. Fall fun!


Collage #2: The Fisks love Halloween, and — as is often the case — had more than one event planned. First, we trick-or-treated at Greek Village, with a special invite from our lovely friend Shanna Sheppard (in costume as a Russian, in A’s honor, below). Casey was my Scott stand-in, as usual.


Collage #3: This collage features more Halloween fun, Holly Hill style.

Fawkes close up_Fotor_Collage

Collage #4: We kicked off the Christmas season with our annual cookie-baking-and-decorating day at the Fisks. The kids had a blast, ate a ton, and still had some cookies leftover for Santa.


Collage #5: The photos, below, represent the holidays in Holly Hill. Arina and Jack show off their presents from Mom and Dad: an animal rescue game and a train game, for Arina and Jack, respectively. Also featured: attempts to get warm in our drafty 100+ year old house . . . chairs by the fire and warm robes seem to do the trick.

New robes_Fotor_Collage

Collage #6: Christmas at my grandmother’s house involves: trains, my parents playing with kids, and Scott checking out via whichever electronic device is handy.

Xmas trains_Fotor_Collage

Collage #7: Christmas at my parents’ house involves: way too many fancy presents for the kids, clothes for me (yay!), and socks for Scott. He got more than socks, of course, but likes to pretend he’s Albus Dumbledore by saying that socks are his favorite gift.


Collage #8: Christmas at the Fisks’ house involves: more presents, fun with cousins, and a joint New Year’s Day birthday party celebrating Uncle Truman and PaPa Fisk.


Collage #9: And here’s another collage from Snow Day 2014, because . . . well . . . we don’t get a lot of snow here, and it’s exciting.

Snow day_Fotor_Collage

Now if I could only figure out how to organize Fisk Family quotes into collage form, updating the blog would be: EASY.

January 2014

We’ve had two snow days in a row, so I’ve decided to update the family blog with a long overdue post. This past October, I chronicled every detail of our trip with Arina to Kazakhstan, but otherwise I haven’t updated since Summer 2013. That means I have Halloween and Christmas to cover, and lots of fun in-between moments.

Arina has been devouring the Harry Potter books. Since we commute to Columbia (an hour and fifteen minutes from Holly Hill), we’ve invested in the Jim Dale audiobook versions. So, for Halloween, we were the Potter family: James (Scott), Lilly (me), and Harry (Jack), with Arina opting to be Fawkes the Phoenix. I made a compelling case for the obvious choices of Luna or Fleur; Scott made a case for Dobby or Hedwig; but, in the end, I think she was a fabulous Fawkes.

Fawkes and HarryAnd, of course, Jack was a fabulous Harry Potter, although when we first put on his costume and told him that he was a wizard, he thought we said lizard, and . . . well . . . this happened:

December was full of cookie baking with the Fisks . . .

Xmas cookies

Power Wheels driving in McBee . . .


lots and lots of lego building . . .


swinging in our backyard . . .

The train swing_Fotor_Collage

and general merriness all around.


In January, we rang in the New Year . . .

Jackincrowncelebrated my birthday on the 11th at the Fisks . . .


and today was pretty fun too:


And now for The Fisk Family, in quotes and memorable mishaps:

1) Scott: “Where’s all the bread?”

Me: “I’ve made cinnamon toast the past two mornings.”

Scott: “Look at you being a good Mom!”

Me: “Um. I didn’t make it for the kids. I made it for me.”

2) Me, explaining the difference between declarative and imperative sentences to Arina: “An example of imperative: ‘ARINA FISK! GET DOWNSTAIRS RIGHT NOW!’; an example of declarative: ‘Arina, let’s meet downstairs.”

Arina: “Huh. I’ve never heard you use declarative.”

3) Arina received her first ever check in the mail. Her response: “WOW. I’m rich for a kid!”

4) Me, explaining fiction and nonfiction to Arina: “So, Harry Potter is fiction, because Hogwarts and magic spells and wands and all that stuff isn’t real.”

Arina: “Except dragons. There used to be dragons.

Me: “No. You mean dinosaurs.”

Arina: “Oh. Bummer.”

5) Jack: “I want to go to Rina’s room!”

Me: “Arina’s cleaning her room. You can help her clean.”

Jack: “I want to watch Rina clean her room!”

6) Jack’s new catchphrase when he’s the least bit uncomfortable:


7) Jack, as backseat driver: “But, Mom. Red means stop.”

Me: “But you can turn right on red, Jack. I was turning right on red earlier today. It was OKAY.”

Jack: “No. Red means STOP. You’re dangerous.”

8) Me, to Scott: “What did Jack think about the hardware store?”

Scott: “He wanted to know if there were any trains.”

9) Jack’s new favorite show: Jake and the Neverland Pirates

Me: “Jack, you need to clean up your mess.”

Jack: “NEVER! Har, har, har.”

10) Scott, on listening to Andrew Soloman’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity: “It makes me a better person. I mean — I’ve learned about the deaf community, and schizophrenics and transgender people.”

Me: “That’s awesome.”

Scott: “Yeah. A deaf person came in at work today, and I’m all: You’re AWESOME. I respect you and your community and identity, and you totally don’t have to get a cochlear implant if you don’t want one.”


Scott, to me: “You’ve gone to 10 again. You need to come back down. You’re going to make her hate you, and she’s never going to want to come home from college.”

Me, to Scott: “Ugh. Just b/c you never get worked up about *anything* doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to have a passionate human response. I have those once a day, you know.”

Arina, who unbeknownst to us, overheard: “Yeah, Dad. We all know Mom’s dramatic. I’ll always come home. Geez. Don’t be mean.”

12) Me: “Jack: what was your favorite part of the zoo today?”

Jack: “The rail road tracks!” [that we crossed as we drove in].

13) Arina, to me: “Can I have these bracelets?”

Me: “Are you paying for them?”

A.: “No.”

Me, seeing that they say star student: “Well, if I pay for them, you only get to wear them as a reward for being a good student.”

A.: “I’m going to find bracelets that say something else.”

14) Scott: “I really like John Shelby Spong’s theology, b/c it frees you from being concerned about people’s hereafter, and it requires you to be concerned about them in the here and now.”

Me: “Yeah.”

Scott: “I have the first part down.”

15) The math problem A. missed:  Renee finishes school at 3:00pm every day. It takes her 20 minutes to walk the dog after school. What information is needed to find the time at which she starts school?
A. The time it takes her to get home from school.
B. The number of hours she stays at school.
C. The time she gets up in the morning.
D. The time it takes her to have lunch.
Me: “It would be the number of hours she stays at school . . . not when she gets up in the morning.”
Arina: “Oh. Well, when I went to Holly Hill Academy, we always woke up right as school was starting.”
Me: “Renee’s Mom is more on top of things.”


16) Me, to Scott: “So, when I looked up your number to call you at work today, I saw that your shop has a bad online review.”

Scott, alarmed: “No way. Send me the link.”

Scott, later: “That guy who posted was a total phony.”

Me: “Yeah? How do you know?”

Scott: “Well, first: he only rates machine shops. He gave one machine shop 5 stars and all the others 1 star — so he’s probably the owner of the ‘good’ machine shop.”

Me: “Yeah. Suspicious.”

Scott: “And, second: the review said that we called and told him our original estimate was wrong and that it would cost more . . . I don’t CALL people to tell them that. I’m never that on top of things. I just tell them the next time they come in.”

17) Example #547 of Arina being more capable as a normal human being functioning in the world than I am:

I tried to get out of the backseat the other day but Scott had locked the car doors, and I told him to hit the power lock button and was complaining that he was taking too long and I wanted to get out; Arina proceeded to reach around me and pop the lock manually.

18) Arina: “Why are you acting like tomorrow is our Kazakhstan trip?”

Me: “I’m not acting like tomorrow is our Kazakhstan trip.”

A.: “You cleaned the sink.”

19) Arina, looking over my shoulder while I filled out a doctor’s form: “Why are they asking if you’re pregnant? You already have two kids.”

Me, teasing: “Maybe they think I should have more. What do you think?”

Arina: “I’d like three one day. But, Mom: two for you. It’s all about what you can handle.”

20) When listening to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I was reminded of how *horrible* the scene is in which “Mad Eye” demonstrates the unforgivable curses on spiders.

Me: “I don’t think Mad Eye should have done that. It was cruel.”

Arina, equally horrified: “Yeah! The spiders were SCARED. That’s really messed up.”

Jack, perfectly calm: “I don’t like spiders.”

21) Jack, with his blanket: “I want to take my blanket and show it to Nana.”

Me: “Aunt Nat made you that blanket.”

Jack: “Yeah — it has a sheep on it.”

Me: “What’s the sheep’s name?”

Jack: “I don’t know. It’s not a real sheep. It’s just a picture.”

22) Trying to explain to Arina how we can leave Kazakhstan at 3:40am on Tuesday the 22nd and arrive in Atlanta at 3:50pm on Tuesday the 22nd.

Scott: [lots of smart stuff about how the sun revolves around the earth, world time zones, etc.]

Arina: “I still don’t get it, Dad.”

Me: “It’s like using the time turner in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Arina: “Oh! Cool.”

23) Jack, to Scott: “Dad?”
Scott: [smiles and nods]
Jack: “Dad?”
Scott: [smiles and nods]
Jack: “DAD?!”
Scott: “Yeah — what?”
Me: “He’s like me. He wants you to answer him with words.”
Scott: “Yeah. He’s annoying.”


24) Scott made cinnamon rolls.

Jack, coming down the stairs: “Where’s that yummy?”

25) Me: “Ack! I *just* washed, dried and folded that basket full of clothes. What are they doing on the kitchen floor?”
Scott: “Jack did it.”
Me: “But why didn’t you pick up the clothes for me?”
Scott: “Do you really want to know the answer to that?”
Me: “YES!”
Scott: “Because the dogs were sleeping on them.”


26) Jack, to Casey: “Remember: I’m the one who likes trains.”

Casey: “I know, honey.”

27) Grandmother, to me: “Your hair looks like a fox’s butt.”

Me: “I was Lilly Potter for Halloween — remember? It’ll be gone in a month. And . . . it kinda makes my skin look luminous, right?”

Grandmother: “No. It makes it look red.”

28) Jack: “My tooth hurts.”

Me: “Oh no! Do you want to go to the dentist, so he can make it feel better?”

Jack: “No. I want you to make it feel better.”

29) Arina, explaining to Scott how dogs have puppies on Minecraft:

“You get a boy dog and a girl dog that really love each other, you throw them a pork chop, and then they have babies.”

30) Arina plays the harmonica; Jack bangs on the piano and sings, at the top of his 4-year-old lungs:

“Christmas Eve! Christmas Eve! It’s just the best! It’s what we do!”

31) Jack saw a bug (I’m guessing of the palmetto variety), cried & screamed his way upstairs, and refused to go back downstairs.

Scott, carrying him: “It’s okay, Jack. I killed it.”

Jack, crying and screaming anew: “But I didn’t want you to KILL it. I wanted you to put it in the bushes with its bug friends!”

Scott, to me: “He’s *so* your kid, Nicole.”

32) I was irritated with Jack and Arina for not listening and potentially making me late to work, so the only thing I could think to “take away” as punishment was the Harry Potter audiobook we’ve been listening to on the drive.

Me: “No Harry Potter on the way to Columbia.”

Arina: “What?!”

Jack: “But we love Harry Potter.”

Me, deciding that it’s a too-cruel punishment: “Well . . . no Harry Potter until we’re out of Holly Hill town limits.”

33) Jack: “I am a train. With a penis.”

34) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation isn’t the fun family classic I thought it would be.  I imagined my biggest concern would be fast-forwarding through Clark’s foul language rants and sexual fantasies, but an abbreviated play by play of watching the movie with Jack is as follows:
“I don’t like broken cars.”
“I don’t want him to cut down the tree! I don’t like broken trees.”
“I don’t like broken windows.”
“I like squirrels! I don’t want him to hurt the squirrel!”
“I don’t like fires and broken houses.”
And, finally: “Um, Mom . . . I don’t want to watch that movie *ever* again.”


35) Scott let out the chickens and only 2 of our 3 girls were in their coop.


Then: he let out Quinby, the handicapped mini-dachshund, and the 3rd chicken was in her (heated) pen. She had bunked with her and had laid an egg in her doghouse.

36) Quote from my 77-year-old grandmother, in response to my disdain for expensive jewelry:

“If a rich man wants to give me a $10,000 diamond, I shall accept it.”

37) Arina: “Hey Mom: how do you keep from getting pregnant?”

Me, panicked: “Why do you want to know?”

A.: “I just don’t want to have a baby any time soon. Or ever.”

Me: “There are these pills you can take. But you’re not old enough yet.”

A.: “Cool. Let me know when I am, b/c I’ll definitely be taking them.”

38) Me, to Arina: “Yes, I know I yell sometimes. But I don’t want you to yell at Jack when you’re frustrated. I want you to be better than me.”

39) Arina: “So . . . Lauren and Dawn said that there are only seven Harry Potter books.”

Me: “That’s right. And you just finished number six, so you have one more to go.”

Arina, wailing: “But I want to listen to them forever!”

Me: “We all do, Sweetheart.”

40) Since our debut as the Potter family on Halloween, my hair has been various bright and fading shades of red. Finally, I went back to brown.

Arina: “I liked your red hair, Mom. It looked great with your nose, because your nose is always red.”

41) Me, to Arina: “I’m sorry I threw bison at you.”

Arina: “That’s okay, Mom. I’m sorry I kept complaining about your cooking.”

42) Jack, on why he doesn’t want to go out — again — in the cold, even to play in the snow: “Well . . . the snow on my Ipad game is fun too.”

Letter to Oksana

Dedicated to Oksana Vasilyevna Oksanich, 11-24-1974 to 2009

Last month, we visited our Kazakh family, that we have courtesy of you. We had such a lovely time, and were thrilled to return home with a few more photos of you. This one looks so very much like Arina:


And this one made us smile because you look lovely and happy and carefree:


Yasha told us that your new husband became violent not long after this photo was taken and that you called him and Vasiliy to come get you. They were happy to do it. You go, girlfriend. Also, ^that guy^ in the suit: what a jerk.

I wonder what happened between this relationship and your last one that made you less confident, less able to walk away from a bad situation. I imagine that you were tired . . . of poverty and worry, and that you were so *over* relationship drama. Granny said that you had “bad luck with men,” but I know at least two who are still crazy about you. Yasha and Vasiliy tell stories about their big sister Oksana, and Yasha took us to visit your grave, still lovingly kept after all this time:


It’s become a bit of a tradition with the advent of social media for people to spend the month of November writing daily “thankful” posts. I just write one: every November 24th, the day of your birth. This tradition started in 2010, the first time your birthday rolled around after we found you, and that first 24th was, actually, Thanksgiving Day. I spend the month of November now being thankful for you.

And part of being thankful for you is being infuriated with anyone who dares to insult you. Sometimes someone will look at Arina, and the conversation will go like this:

Random person: “I just don’t understand how her [birth]mother could give her up.”

Me: “We’re so very privileged, aren’t we? It’s hard to imagine the poverty, the desperation, that so many people experience.”

Random person: “Oh, I’d never give up my child – ever.”

More often than not, perfectly manicured fingers and perfectly highlighted hair are attached to such comments. You know, and I know, that they have *no* idea what they’d do.

Because poverty is hard. It’s also become kind of a thing, here, to “hate on the poor.” I was with a group of people this past week who — seemingly out of nowhere — started a “let’s hate on the poor” conversation. When it happens, I always think of you and our Kazakh family, and feel a blaze of anger, and have a kinda out-of-body “is this happening?” experience, and start formulating all sorts of things to say, and often miss my opportunity to say them, because the conversation moves on while I sit, frozen . . . before I’m ready, before I’m even able to recover and return to normal human functions.

I hate myself when this happens, and I feel like I’ve failed you, our Kazakh family, and Arina:


But, I try to “make it right” when I mess up, when I miss opportunities, and one of the ways to do that is to share your story, and the stories of others: like this one that I posted on my Facebook page today.

And I let people know, in whatever clumsy way I can, how much you mean to us. So many people consider you and yours “the least of these,” without realizing that wisdom texts in religion after religion teach us that we’ll find everything worth having exactly where you are — in the place that’s hard, human, raw and inexpressively beautiful.

I always think of you in November, but I’ve thought of you more than usual this entire year, because I’ve been preparing to teach and am currently teaching Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We finished the 2012 film last week, and I confessed to my class what Scott and I have always said . . .

. . . we don’t know if Jean Valjean’s is an end-of-life experience on which we can count, but if it is, neither of us want to go anywhere at that moment with anyone but you.

All our love.

Photo Gallery! More Photos From Our Kazakhstan Trip!


^ At Malutka Baby House, with Rosa (the orphanage Director)


^ Arina, in our Karaganda hotel


^ Arina bowls.


^ Arina and her Dad


^ Arina and Hussein (Aunt Elena’s oldest son)


^ Anastasia (Aunt Nadya’s oldest daughter) . . . and her new baby!


^ Uncle Yasha and baby Valeria


^ Elena and baby Valeria


^ Granny and her great-granddaughter


^ Gifts from Yasha and Elena!


^ One of my favorites, even if the focus is off. Yasha, Ira and Arina were playing the hand pile game.


^ Sweet Eliza


^ Eliza wanted me to be in all the photos.


^ Granny and Arina


^ Fun with Aunt Nadya


^ Zarina, in route to the bowling alley


^ Christina and Arina


^ Ed, translator extraordinaire!


^ Everyone loves Ed.


^ Arina and Christina check out their scores.


^ Christina and Nadya


^ Zarina, Nadya, and Irina.


^ Andrew, the cutest 6-year old ever. And . . . a conversation about Andrew with Arina:

Arina: “Poor Andrew has such bad teeth. I guess they rotted out. Maybe we can help Uncle Yasha send him to the dentist?”
Me: “He’s six, Arina, not Jack’s age. He’s *supposed* to be missing them.”

[to her credit, he and Jack *are* the same size, so it was a little confusing]


^ We bowled, and bowled, and bowled, until everyone was worn. out.


^ Double trouble. Also: notice how everyone is carrying Arina is this photo and all the photos to follow. She ran out of the hotel room without her shoes, which is a cultural no-no, so we had to take turns carrying her. And that was just fine with Arina, and everyone else too.


^ Eliza carries Arina.


^ Nadya, Ira, Arina, and Christina


^ Elena, Yasha, Arina . . .


. . . and Andrew!

Top 3 List: What We’ve Learned About Kazakhstan; or, What America Can Learn From Kazakhstan


(1) We felt safer in Kazakhstan than in America. Truth.

The weekend before we left, we read about a shooting at 5 points in Columbia, near the USC campus; a stray bullet left an 18-year old freshman girl paralyzed. While we were in Kazakhstan, we read about yet another school shooting in America, in which a teacher — who had survived two tours to Afghanistan — was killed in the classroom.

Out of curiosity, we looked it up: Kazakhstan has 200 shooting deaths a year, compared to America’s 30,000. Part of this seems due to the following sensible regulations that *still* — despite all the violence, including Newtown — elude Americans: in Kaz, all firearms must be registered; a firearm safety training course is required for all applying for a license; to receive a license, you not only submit to a background check but also to a medical (including mental) check; and, you must reapply and re-qualify for your license every 5 years.

I asked Ed what the Ukrainians and Kazakhs think of the gun violence in America . . . they think we’re nuts.

So, every time we were stupid Americans and found ourselves boasting about our way of doing this or that, the conversation eventually took the following turn:

Arina: “DAD! I just went to the bathroom on the train, and when I flushed, everything fell through a hole onto the track.”

Scott: “No way. That doesn’t happen on trains in America. We do that better.”


” . . . although, I’d trade trains with them any day if I could also trade our gun death statistics.”

Another way we felt safer? I rarely eat meat, period, but there was a beef-stuffed pastry that I really, really liked.

Me, to Scott: “I’m not going to get mad cow am I?” [beef makes me nervous, since there is a zombie-like disease that *can*, in the realm of possibility, accompany its consumption]

Scott: “Um . . . did you see how they raise and care for their cows here? Were they on factory farms, standing knee-deep in their own feces?”

Me: “No.”

Scott: “Exactly. When mad cow breaks out, people stop importing . . . from America.”


^ Happy cows.

(2) Kazakhs are a peace-loving, hospitable people. In Kazakhstan, Muslim and Christian (Russian Orthodox, particularly) are the two major religions. And they coexist beautifully. In our hotel, we heard prayers being sung, so we went exploring and found the most beautiful mosque (built since our 2006 visit).



Across the street? A church that you can see from the open gate surrounding the mosque; it seems like they designed the gate to complement the lovely architectural lines of the church:


So, yeah. This makes the debate in America over whether a Muslim community center can/should be built within _____ distance of the World Trade Center memorial so very sad and shameful.

As for hospitality: most Kazakhs seem to drink instant coffee, but when the hotel staff realized I was American they refused to let me drink instant and brewed “cafe americano” especially for me each morning.

(3) Kazakhs take care of each other. And by “each other” I don’t just mean other Kazakhs. I mean other people period. The only time we were *in trouble* so to speak was when Scott pulled out and thumbed through his wallet in a busy marketplace. He said that both beggars asking for alms and vendors hawking their wares were prepped to descend on him, when a little Kazakh lady (who I mentioned in an earlier post) started scolding him and pulling him back to the train.

So: if you do something stupid in Kazakhstan, there will — more often than not — be someone coming to your rescue.

And, Scott and I admitted that we both felt a pang when we recognized how ideal it is, in a way, to live in our Kazakh family’s little village — where there are both kids and animals in and out of every door, where everyone depends on and loves and helps each other. We are so much more isolated by comparison in our community, in every community in America probably, than they are in that little village.

For this reason, I’ve proposed to Scott that we check out Kaz real estate and start saving for a summer home, maybe here:


or here:


And if we fly east for the summer, our Kazakh family should fly west for the winter. Uncle Yasha said last winter was the worst in 50 years, with snow chest high and temperature -40 degrees. And nobody needs that. But, if we could “fix” the winters and cheer up the Visa officers (seriously: we’re *so* glad we didn’t chance trying to get into the country with a faulty visa) the country would be pretty much perfect.

Top 3 List: What We’ve Learned About Oksana

(1) During lunch with our Kazakh family on Saturday, Scott asked what Oksana, Arina’s birthmother, was like. Granny and Yasha answered simultaneously:

“She had BAD luck with men.”

When Scott asked the question, he was thinking more about this Oksana:


And he expected something along the lines of:

— she was impossible to keep in clothes, since she was a tomboy who always tore holes in the knees of her pants; or

— she loved animals.

To be fair, we found out that both of those facts are indeed true and just like Arina. But the first thing we learned about Oksana will, in our minds, always be the emphatic

“She had BAD luck with men.”

(2) She was loved. Oksana’s two younger brothers, especially, adored her. Granny Valentina had three daughters (one with her first husband, two with the second), and then she had her boys, Vasiliy and Yasha. Yasha said that the brothers loved to prank their sisters, but they learned not to prank Oksana, after she locked them in a room all day as retribution.

I’ve already mentioned that her first marriage lasted, like, a second, because as soon as her husband hit her, she called Vasiliy and Yasha. They went to pick her up and take her home, and that was that.

At least the wedding provided an occasion for some of the only photos of Oksana we have, although I seriously thought about penciling “jerk” above his photo.


^ In the only photo of Oksana we had before this trip, she was partly covering her face, and Yasha said it’s b/c she had a cold sore. “That’s not a good photo of her,” he said, “but she was a very pretty woman.” Yep. We can tell.


I also mentioned in a previous post that Oksana’s family did not care for her final partner, Valery (Arina’s birthfather). They said he was a heavy drinker and always wanted Oksana to drink with him. When Oksana died, Valery did not call the family, and he told the authorities that she had no family other than himself. The Valentinas* found out about her death through one of the only mutual friends they shared with Valery.

Vasiliy and Yasha went to the morgue and were turned away. When they returned with the necessary paperwork, proving that they had the right to claim their sister’s body, she was released to them and they buried her beside her father. One of the more heartwarming moments of the trip was seeing how tenderly they care for the graves, which are in a field within walking distance of their village. Whenever a significant day rolls around (birth, anniversary, etc.), they decorate the plot. Below, you can see they recently celebrated Dedushka, even placing his favorite plate and coffee cup on the grave:


Yasha said that he and Vasiliy went looking for Valery after the fact to ask him, “What happened?” and “Why did you say Oksana had no family?,” but they never found him — which was probably a very good thing for Valery.

(3) Oksana loved. It was hard on the family, especially Yasha, when they realized that Oksana had lied about taking Arina to Malutka and relinquishing her rights. Yasha insisted that he would have done whatever was needed to care for Arina, even if that meant taking a second, third, fourth, fifth job.

I assured him that his sister knew that, because he was already caring for Ira, and she was probably too embarrassed to ask him to do the same for Arina.

But, also, I think she understood what Marcus knows and Will learns in the film version of About A Boy. Sometimes you need more family, more backup, more of a support staff. Oksana loved enough to find that for all of us.


* Valentina is actually Granny’s first name; Oksanich is the surname — but, when I didn’t know/couldn’t remember Oksanich, I started referring to the family as the “Valentinas” and it just kind of stuck, b/c it’s such a fun name to say. 🙂

Next List: The Top Three Things We’ve Learned about Kazakhstan . . .

Top 3 List: What We’ve Learned About Our Kazakh Family

We’re currently sitting in the Frankfurt airport for a long layover, and since the welcome puppies haven’t made their way over yet, Scott and I have decided to start the first of what will be a brief series of Top Three lists. We’re trying to be as detailed as possible about the trip, for ourselves as well as Arina, and Top Three lists have a way of getting the information down without it seeming so daunting. So, without further ado, the top three things we’ve learned about our Kazakh family are as follows:


^ Yasha celebrates his first strike.

(1) Uncle Yasha is kind of a rock star. Or a superhero. Or a superhero rock star. Yet, despite what the above photo suggests, he doesn’t even know it. He was super anxious that Scott and I like him. At one point, he said (through Ed): “Are you and Scott okay? I’m worried that you’re getting bored with us.”

Umm . . . we were smiling so hard that our cheeks were hurting . . . but one of us must have gotten that glazed over jet lag look for, like, a second; and Yasha noticed. We assured him, of course, that we were over the moon and not bored at all.

He asked if we could go to a quiet place for an hour or so after bowling, just to talk, so we suggested a nice little sitting area in our hotel. We made sure to get this photo, though, before we left the bowling alley. And we made sure to have extra big smiles and to *not* look bored.


While the kids watched television and played in our hotel room, the adults had the best conversation ever in a hotel lobby. This is the conversation I mentioned in an earlier post that is best summarized by: “I love love love love love you” — all around.

The part that surprised us, though, was the realization that Yasha was worried we’d think poorly of him, when — as mentioned above — we think he’s quite possibly the most amazing person we’ve ever met, let alone have as a family member.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that Yasha felt responsible for the family at only 14 years old, when his much-loved Dad died of a heart attack.


^ See baby Arina on the 2nd row, and Yasha beside her, not much more than a baby himself.

He told me and Scott, through tears, that he tried *so* hard, but things just kept going to hell. Oksana died. When he got that phone call, he went to collect Arina (Oksana had told Yasha that she was required to enroll Arina, b/c of failure to thrive, in a hospital program). But . . . Arina wasn’t at the hospital. Someone there suggested that he contact Malutka Baby House, and, sure enough, Oksana had gone there and signed away her rights.

Imagine having to tell Granny that (1) Oksana is dead; and that (2) um . . . Oksana had lied about Arina being at the hospital.

Yasha thought that Oksana’s decision was a reflection on HIM, that she wouldn’t have done it had his Dad been alive. So, he’s felt — for years — like he wasn’t good enough/it was all his fault when it *totally* wasn’t.

We told him all this, of course, and I’m positive that Granny and Nadya and Elena have said the same many times over. Still, he now knows that *everyone involved* feels the same way.

Then, Scott and I showed him the videos we made of Arina while she was at Malutka, so Yasha was able to see it wasn’t the big, scary place that he imagined. Group hugs and kisses all around, and Yasha and Elena and Andrew are excited about coming to visit us in America next. Yasha said that he’s even willing to go to the beach, if we promise there won’t be any sharks. (Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, so the idea of an ocean is both intriguing and a little bit terrifying).

(2) I mentioned in an earlier post about how similar many of the family names are, but names aren’t the only thing our Kazakh family shares! When looking at the first set of photos we took, we were taken aback by how much Arina and Christina look alike (seriously: take a sheet of paper and cover the first half of their faces; the nose, the smile, and chin are *exactly* the same):


But, then, we noticed something really weird. In many of the photos, Arina seems to mirror whoever she’s sitting beside . . .

Arina and Cyril? Identical expressions.


Arina and Yasha? Identical expressions, again.


It’s actually kind of creepy, but in a super awesome way.

(3) Our Kazakh family is awesome, because they understand adoption (family by choice) better than most. Granny introduces me now as: “my daughter Nicole, with her husband, Scott, and my grandchildren, Arina and Jack.”

The only point at which I thought Scott was going to vomit was when Granny gave us money, because she wanted us to buy a present for Jack from her. The idea of taking Granny’s money when she has a wood-burning stove, an ice box for a fridge, and an outhouse was difficult for me too, actually. Ed was already having to tell us constantly:

“No, Scott. You cannot buy a refrigerator. And, no, you cannot build a bathroom addition to the house.”

“No, Nicole. You cannot leave a card for Granny with money inside, because they know how much you’ve spent on the trip, and it will just distress them.”

“No, no, no. You must recover financially from the trip before you do anything else. Stop it, the both of you.”

In the end, we didn’t buy the refrigerator, or build the addition, or even leave the card. Instead, we took a few bills from Granny for Jack . . . because, having grown up with both sets of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, I knew that this was *such* a Babushka thing to do.

We are definitely going to be more diligent about birthday cards and presents, though, from here on out.

One of my favorite conversations with Granny, that illustrates this point #3 especially well, went as follows:

Me: “So, Granny . . . all the family lives in this little village, within walking distance?”

Granny: “Not all the family, dear . . . a few of them live in America.”


Next List: The Top Three Things We’ve Learned about Oksana . . .