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Sunday, May 2, 2021

Happy Birthday, Eleanor!

Eleanor turned seven this week.  I have always regarded Eleanor as being the oldest of my three babies.  I've been able to maintain that illusion for several years now, but with a seven year-old who is almost done with first grade, I have to finally admit that my babies are growing up.  

Eleanor, of course, is thrilled to have made it to the ripe old age of seven and is excited to have only one more year until she can be baptized.  She has been looking forward to this birthday for months and has been excitedly counting down the days as part of her math lessons for the last month.

Brandon and I broke our family ban on birthday parties for Eleanor this year.  She has found a best friend here at post, and when we found out that her friend's birthday was the day before Eleanor's, a combined birthday party was planned.  We're good friends with the family, so everyone was happy to have an excuse to get together anyway.

As birthday parties go, it was extremely low key.  I had Kathleen and Sophia blow up a few balloons and make a sign, but otherwise it was pretty much the exact same thing as having friends over on a Saturday afternoon.  Eleanor and her friend were happy to be sung to, blow out candles, and open some presents before going back to playing.  I was happy to have my commitment limited to making a cake and ordering pizza.

Eleanor is generally a happy, cheerful, helpful child.  She loves to draw and loves to draw horses most of all, leaving her creations scattered through the house.  Her favorite day of the week is Friday, as it is the day that she gets to ride, and all her favorite toys are horses.  I sometimes joke that Eleanor is my reward for not having killed her two older rambunctious, mischievous brothers.  She has the unenviable position of being stuck between two older and one younger brother and usually takes their torments without too much trouble.  When my older girls have grown up and left me, I'll be happy to have Eleanor to keep me company.  

We are all happy to have Eleanor as part of our crazy family.  Happy Birthday, Eleanor!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Girls' Weekend

In the Foreign Service, there are various posts that have lots of interesting local handicrafts to buy, and these place are often referred to as 'shopping posts.'  Uzbekistan is ones of those posts.  They have lovely carpets, beautiful Persian miniatures, interesting metalworking, detailed woodcarving, handwoven silk fabric, hand-embroidered tapestries, and stunning pottery.  When my parents came to visit, my mother assured me that they didn't need anything else for their house.  I smiled to myself when she said this, knowing that she hadn't seen all of the beautiful things that Uzbekistan has to offer.  

There are various regions that are known for various handicrafts, so if you really want to get serious about shopping in Uzbekistan, then the best place to buy things is in the region that they're made.  All of the handicrafts can be found in Tashkent, but often you can find higher quality, more selection, and better prices when you go outside Tashkent for shopping.

Two years ago, the three Relief Society sisters in the church group here took a trip to Samarkand, the center of suzani,hand-embroidered tapestry, production.  We had a lovely weekend together and bought a serious amount of suzanis.  When you combine stunningly beautiful handicrafts with three women egging each other on, it makes for some pretty intense shopping.  While shopping, we saw a beautiful ceramic bowl and found that it had come from another region.  We decided that our next trip would be for pottery shopping.

Between having Elizabeth and COVID, we didn't get an opportunity to take another trip until this spring.  One of the sisters left last summer, so it was only two of us this time.  We were able to get our first round of vaccinations a few weeks ago, so as soon as we knew that the vaccinations were coming, we got the trip set up.  We are both leaving this summer, so it was now or never.

Thankfully our amazing Russian teacher, Elmira, was able to coordinate everything for us, booking the hotel, finding masters to visit, and setting up the schedule.  She was even able to come with us and act as our translator and bargainer.  

We left early Friday morning and drove four hours to the first town, Kokand, and were able to pass this trip off as cultural enlightenment by visiting a two hundred year-old mosque and the palace of the Kokand Khanate, built in the late nineteenth century.  

But to make sure we accomplished our true purpose, we were also able to get some shopping in, visiting the workshop of a master woodcarver, fabric weaver, and knife maker.  I found a lovely table and fabric, and my friend was able to purchase some equally lovely knives.

On Saturday we rose bright and early to get to Rishtan, the home to numerous ceramic workshops in Uzbekistan.  One of the main ceramicists had gotten a group masters together several years before and organized the construction of a ceramics center, which was finished last year.  The lovely complex has the workshops, showrooms, and homes of twenty ceramicists.  

We had originally planned to spend two hours, but finally pulled away with a loaded trunk four hours after showing up.  Each time we stepped into a new shop, there were new and different delights to greet us, and it was almost physically painful to have to only choose a few.  By the end of our visit, everyone was happy.  We were happy with our treasures and they were happy that we had liberally spread our generosity across the entire complex.

Our visit finished with a trip to the home and workshop of our host, Alisher.  He had a special treat for us - the opening and unloading of a kiln-full of new pottery that he and his apprentices had been working on for the last several months.  I had thought that I was done with my shopping, but as they pulled out piece after stunning piece from the kiln, I realized that I was sadly mistaken.  When I showed my Russian teacher which pieces had caught my fancy, I told her that I didn't even care about the price anymore.  I just wanted the pieces.

By the end of the day, I had found thirteen new treasures to take home with me to fill my house with the beauty of Uzbekistan.  I figured that it was a good trade - all of the local craftsman got paid for all of their hard labor and I would have lovely things to spark joy whenever I looked at them.  It's probably a good thing that we're leaving in a few months, however - otherwise I'd be tempted to go back and get some more pottery.  But instead I'll just be content with what I have.  And whenever I look at it, I'll be reminded of a lovely weekend with two lovely friends.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The End of an Era

Elizabeth turns eighteen months this week, which means that she is definitely no longer a baby.  She hasn't been a baby for quite some time, but I don't think I realized it fully until the last few weeks.  Being a girl, she started talking a few months ago and keeps adding a word or two to her vocabulary each week.  After a slow start, she is confidently walking around the house, happily making as many messes as she can before someone finds her and confiscates whatever writing instrument she has managed to find despite our best efforts to keep them from her.  She has even figured out how to go both up and down stairs.  If we weren't leaving in three months, I'd be gearing up to potty train her in a few months.

When Kathleen was eighteen months old, she was a giant, almost old enough to head off to college.  I was three months away from delivering Sophia, so Kathleen didn't have the luxury of staying a baby much longer.  I needed someone who was big enough to do things on their own and maybe even help out.  

But Elizabeth is the last child and has so many other siblings that fill all of the other slots - teenager, tween, older child, younger child, toddler - that nobody has really considered her as anything other than The Baby.  But while none of us were noticing, she kept on growing up and turned into a toddler without our permission.

It is both strange and liberating to contemplate the end of having a baby in the house.  I've had babies in the house (or on their way) for fifteen years now and been anticipating babies for much longer than that.  Ever since I was a child, I've always wanted to be a mother and looked forward to that eventual day.

I'm certainly not done being a mother by any stretch of the imagination (after I'll mother is a job that never ends), but I'm now officially done with being a mother to babies.  I knew, theoretically, that this day would come eventually, but the theoretical consideration of a future state and the actual arrival of that state are two different prospects entirely.  I have now finished a stage of my career as a mother, and from here on I will be closing down more stages on the back end while I continue to open up new stages on the front one.  

Awhile ago I realized that I will no longer have a constant baby in the house, the older babies getting replaced with new models quite regularly.  Now I will have a constant teenager (soon to be two teenagers) in the house, always someone who is looking forward to and planning for their own life as an adult to begin soon.  Instead of welcoming in new family members, I have to shift to sending them out on their own.  

But I'm also very happy to be giving away clothes as soon as Elizabeth grows out of them.  I was happy to put the infant car seat in the give-away pile, along with a pile of baby blankets and crib sheets.  I'm looking forward to getting rid of the diapers and diaper pail this fall.  I thrilled that I never have to fly with an infant again.  I'm relieved that our travel from here on out will always be with children who can walk, talk, and eat regular table food.  The children are all happy that we won't have any more agents of destruction that get into their favorite toys and books and ruin them.  

But I'm also sad that I have only have one more baby to cuddle that will let me rock them as they sweetly suck their thumb, nestling themselves under my chin.  I know that I will rock other babies, but they will never be my babies.  I'll never again be able to elicit those deep, delighted baby laughs as I blow raspberries on soft baby tummies as they kick their legs in pleasure.  Nobody will fit perfectly into the crook of my arm or fall asleep in my lap with the perfect bonelessness of baby sleep.  Pretty soon nobody will even want bedtime stories any more.  

But such is life - there is always a strange, disconcerting mix of both sorrow and gladness.  And despite trying to decide whether I can't wait for them to grow up, or that I never want them to ever stop being babies, time continues on quite regularly without any consultation from me about how I would prefer it to flow.  Once we are born, we march inevitably on to death.  Or to put it less bleakly, once a baby is born, it marches on inevitably to adulthood and all the joys and sorrows that come along the way.  

So whether I like it or not (and that depends on the day and the time of any particular day), my era of Mother to Babies has ended.  Time for toddlerhood to begin!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Welcome, Spring (for real this time)

Back in February, we thought that spring had arrived.  It was early for Tashkent, but I remember experiencing an equally early spring back in Dushanbe, so I figured we were just having another one.  The apricot trees all bloomed, the bushes started leafing out, and the daffodils looked like they were going to bloom.  Then it snowed.  And then it froze.  And then it warmed up again before plunging down to a hard freeze for several days in a row - one night getting down to nine degrees Fahrenheit.

Quite a few bushes that had come out of dormancy, including our neighbor's lovely honeysuckle hedge and my own oleander plant, got killed by the late, hard frost.  I've seen holes appearing in landscaping where dead bushes have been pulled out, and noticed that about half the branches on our neighbor's willow trees haven't ever leafed out.  I'm always sad when plants get killed.

After the freeze ended, we had rain.  I use our pool to judge the amount of rain we get each winter, and this year's water level was several inches below last year's.  Then it rained for almost two weeks straight and we were suddenly above last year's rainfall level.  It felt like spring would never come.  I knew that it would, but my poor, sunlight-starved, animal brain had a hard time believing it.

But this last week has finally brought spring, and this time it is for good.  We've thrown open the windows, put on our shorts and short-sleeved shirts, filled up the pool, and started mowing the lawn again.  The weather has been sunny and seventy degrees all week long.  Tulips are blooming all around town.  All the trees are turning green as the leaves practically burst out of the branches.  Our Virginia creeper vine has gone from bare sticks to tiny red leaves to almost-full green ones over the last week.  We've even spotted both tortoises as they make their way around the yard finding green delicacies to break their winter fast on.  

Yesterday we went up to the mountains with friends to enjoy the glorious spring weather.  We were greeted by a world clothed in the eye-dazzling bright green that only comes with new growth in the spring.  Countless cars had their trunks open selling herb-filled green somsas that are only available at this time of the year, and other enterprising Uzbeks has set up impromptu stands stocked with kites to fly while enjoying the perfect weather.  Families set up picnics along the hills or beside the river as everyone soaked up sunshine after a long winter spent inside.

We enjoyed our own picnic on top of a small ridge where I felt like spinning while singing about the hills being alive.  Then we pull out own own kite and all the children took turns flying it while those in waiting played tag, stomped flowers (there were eight boys total), or threw rocks down hills.  Everyone couldn't help but have huge grins on their faces as we all enjoyed our day up in the mountains.  

Soon enough spring will wane and summer will set in.  The green will go from bright to tired and we will all hide from the sun in our houses or from the heat in our pools.  Our own Saturdays will be spent cleaning out the house in preparation for our move, and our friends will be gone, having left us a month before our own departure.  The friendly sunshine and high excitement of spring will be a quiet memory.

But for now, spring is new, the weather is perfect, and friendships have not been yet broken up.  Strawberry season is in a few weeks, followed by cherries and apricots, so welcome after a winter of apples.  All of the delights are coming, and I intend to enjoy them all for this last spring here in Tashkent.

Sunday, March 28, 2021


Brandon and I have wanted to go to a buzkashi game ever since we first heard about them before moving to Dushanbe.  Buzkashi is a Central Asian game that is played by riders on horseback trying to get a goat carcass through a goal.  It's a pretty unstructured game, without formal teams or even set numbers of players, and usually played on an open field out in the mountains.  

The games themselves are notoriously hard to find, as they are organized fairly spontaneously, depending a lot on the weather and inclination.  The sport is only played in the spring, around the Zoroastrian holiday of Navruz, and so there's a very narrow window of time to both hear about and be able to attend a buzkashi game.  

In Dushanbe, we would usually hear about games after they had happened, or the games that we did hear about happened on a day we couldn't attend.  Often then would be held an hour or two away from the city in a location that seemed to be randomly chosen.  All of the information was spread entirely by word of mouth, and if you didn't know someone who knew someone, you were out of luck.  

So far we've had the same luck with games here in Tashkent.  We heard about a game last year, but it was right at the beginning of COVID and just after Elizabeth got out of the hospital, so that game got missed also.  This is our last year in Tashkent, so when my Russian teacher started organizing a group to see a game this spring, I made sure to be part of it.

We didn't know when it would take place because there needed to be a window of clear weather, and this spring has been pretty rainy.  There was talk of maybe the weekend of Navuz, but nobody knew for sure.  On Sunday afternoon, we got the news that Monday was the day.  It happened to be a holiday for the embassy also, so Brandon was already off work.  I told the kids that it was an impromptu holiday, we packed lunches, and then headed off into the mountains.

We had to wait as the local khohim (regional governor) kept changing his mind about whether or not we could go because of the pandemic, but eventually he either got enough of a bribe, decided that we were okay, or just got tired of being bothered, and we were given permission to go.  There were about forty people from the international school and the embassy community, and we all loaded into the backs of big trucks to make our way up to the buzkashi field, a somewhat level sheep grazing ground up in the mountains.

When we saw the hundreds of horses milling around, we were all happy to be safely in the back of a truck, parked on the edge of the action.  Several times the horses got close enough to bump up against the truck and the spectators milling in front of it had to quickly scatter before they got trampled.  Brandon and I were also happy that we had left all of the little children in our party home with the housekeeper.  

The game was a series of rounds, with each round ending when someone managed to get the goat carcass into another truck at the opposite end of the field.  I hadn't ever considered exactly how heavy a goat carcass was until I watched the men try and wrestle it down the length of a field while on the back of a galloping horse.  The goat would frequently get dropped and then the riders would surround it in an increasingly large scrum of horses, men, and whips so thick that we couldn't even see the carcass.  My respect for buzkashi players increased tremendously as I watched them lean down from their saddle in the middle of constantly moving horse legs and then haul the carcass up before breaking free from the pack to gallop wildly down the field.  The carcass itself didn't last through too many rounds of dropping, trampling, and pulling before it had to be replaced with a new one.

At the end of each round, the winner would go up to the organizer truck to fetch their prize, which could be a variety of things.  I saw money change hands, live goats handed over by the scruff of their neck to be hauled off by horseback, a very doleful sheep, and even a long rolled carpet wrapped in tape.  I felt a little like I had stumbled onto the filming of a Central Asian version of Lawrence of Arabia.  At the end of the match, I saw several of those goats and sheep being unceremoniously stuffed into the trunks of Ladas for the trip to their new home. 

The children all enjoyed their impromptu holiday, which was helped by sharing the truck with the other family who has church with us.  Everyone enjoyed a picnic in the truck, watching the horses, petting the goat in the truck next to ours, riding in the back of the truck as it bumped its way up and down the rutted mountain track, and wandering around the hills around the field.  As we were jolting back down the mountainside to our cars, one of our friends pointed out that for our children this is just another day for them - have a holiday, go watch hundreds of men on horseback chase after a goat carcass in the mountains.  But for their peers back in America, it would be wild beyond imagination.  But I guess that's the upside of this crazy life, experiencing things that you couldn't find in the US even if you tried.

By the end of the match, about three or four hours after it started, everyone had had a great time and was ready to go home.  We joined the streams of horses and men going back down the mountainside, heading home after the game.  Brandon and I both agreed that it was a pretty amazing day, and that buzkashi is a sport that has to be seen to be appreciated.  But after watching the shoving, whipping, grabbing, lunging, pushing, and straining that all the players were subjected to, it's a sport that I will never participate in myself - I'm perfectly happy to just watch it.  

Sunday, March 14, 2021


 A few years ago, Brandon and I took the children to Dubai.  It was the first time we'd taken a trip where we weren't visiting family.  Everyone had a wonderful time, and the children have been remembering it with fondness ever since it happened.  So when we moved to Tashkent, I started making plans for another trip with the children.  We had been planning on going to Bali, but when COVID happened and Bali shut down to tourists, we had to make other plans.

Europe wasn't really an option, and we weren't looking for a European vacation anyway.  Europe is great for older children who understand and appreciate things like architecture, history, and art, but really terrible for smaller children who get tired and bored very, very easily.  So until our younger ones grow more interested in those kinds of things, beach vacations are the best vacations for us.

Thankfully, the Maldives has been welcoming international tourists for awhile now, with no quarantine requirements upon arrival.  All we needed were negative PCR tests, valid passports, and a hotel reservation.  

The older children had spring break this past week for their online classes, so we decided to travel during that break, going for an entire week.  The travel wasn't that bad in comparison to traveling to the US, leaving Tashkent at four in the morning and getting into Malé, the capital of the Maldives, at two in the afternoon.  But the best part was that we never changed timezones.  I've never traveled internationally before and stayed in the same time zone.  It turns out that it's a lot easier to get over a 1:30 am start time when you only have to get over the lack of sleep and not a nine-hour time difference to boot.  

The Maldives is a country entirely composed of tropical atolls, located three degrees above the equator in the Indian ocean.  There are about 1,200 individual islands in the Maldives, an a majority of the hotels are resorts that are located on their own private atoll.  The resort we were staying at was far enough from Malé that we had to take a seaplane to get to it.  With only sixteen seats in the plane, we made up half the passengers and had to leave half our luggage to come on a later flight because there wasn't enough room for it.

Our hotel was on a small island, 500 meters long by 200 meters wide, and all the villas were either oceanfront or over the water.  There were lots of families with children, although none of them with seven, so we were in good company at breakfast, dinner, and by the pool.

Both Brandon and the children, when seeing the clear, blue, tropical water for the first time, were completely amazed.  "I didn't know water could really be this color!" exclaimed Kathleen, "I thought all the pictures had been photoshopped.  It turns out that they weren't!"  The island was a small blip in the ocean, covered with coconut palm trees and surrounded by white sandy beaches.  For me, I can't think of a more perfect picture of paradise.  

Everyone had a wonderful week of swimming, playing in the sand, taking walks on the beach, and snorkeling.  The island was located on the edge of an atoll, so the reef was literally right out our back door.  All we had to do was put on our gear, swim out fifteen or twenty feet, and then gently drift with the current along the two-hundred foot drop off.  We saw all kinds of tropical fish and coral, giant clams, sea anemones with their attendant clownfish, a moray eel, blacktip sharks, and a group of five manta rays swooping across the reef.  

One of my favorite parts of the week was not cooking or making children eat anything they didn't like.  Every morning William enjoyed two doughnuts for breakfast while Elizabeth ate a whole plate of fresh pineapple with her own doughnut.  Brandon had fish curry every breakfast, and Kathleen drank at least three glasses of fresh juice.  Despite having new kinds of delicious food every night, Joseph stayed true to his favorite meal, rice with ketchup, a roll, and fruit finished up with a bowl of ice cream.  William had potatoes wedges and a roll to even out the two bowls of ice cream.  The rest of us enjoyed more variety, but what mattered to me was that I didn't cook it, I didn't clean it up, and I didn't have to make anyone eat their food.  

By the end of the week, everyone had been burned multiple times (tropical sun is fierce even when you do reapply sunscreen), the children's hair was several shades lighter, and we had collected at least a pound of beautiful seashells.  We all regretfully boarded the seaplane, wishing we all had at least several more weeks of paradise.  

When I asked Brandon what he would have changed about the trip, he thought for awhile before answering.  "I would have brought the baby monitor.  And another bottle of sunscreen."  We both thought for a little longer before agreeing that we couldn't think of anything else we would have done differently.  And that is when you know that you've had about the most perfect vacation possible.  I'm already making plans for a return trip.  

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Groundhog Was Wrong

 When we moved to Dushanbe back in 2014, I geared myself up for a long, cold winter.  After all, Dushanbe is right next to the mountains and in Central Asia, so that meant that I was going to actually have to learn how to cope with winter.  

I learned a few months later that my calf-length down coat was going to spent most of the next eight years hanging up in my closet.  I think that I can count the times I've worn my bright red cold-weather coat on one hand.  I don't think I've ever worn it here.  It turns out that there are two parts of Central Asia - the cold parts (Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) and the not-so-cold parts (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).  

So in January, when winter got really 'cold' - where the temperature didn't get above freezing for at least ten days straight - I didn't worry too much because winter here is pretty much a six-week long season.  It takes a long time to really settle in and starts its exit by the end of February.  The ski season might stretch a little longer than two months, but I'm pretty sure it's never had good snow for three solid months.  

We can depend on apricot trees blooming by the first of March, and though there may be a rogue snow storm or a week or two of cold, rainy weather in during the Month, winter has lost its power and we can expect a lot of fine, warm days in late March.  I like winter that way.  I prefer it as a something that makes spring possible, but not much more than that.

This year, however, winter has given up the ghost pretty early.  I looked over our wall a few days ago and noticed that our neighbor's apricot trees were just about to burst into bloom.  Today Joseph and I took a walk in flip-flops and t-shirts, pushing Elizabeth in the stroller while she happily kicked her bare baby feet.  The weather forecasts claims that we will reach the upper seventies by Thursday before dipping into - gasp! - the fifties next week when some rain comes through.  

I'm really enjoying wearing a t-shirt in February.  It feels so indulgent to be able to open the back door while cooking in the kitchen so I can enjoy some of the bright sunshine.  Sending the children outside to play is much easier when everyone just throws on flip-flops (or not even that) and runs outside.  They definitely play much longer when toes and fingers aren't going numb.

I know that we won't have unbroken warm weather until spring begins in earnest next month, but I'll take this warm spell, not looking a gift horse in the mouth.  After all, every day that it isn't cold is one more day closer to real spring where it will be warm reliably and I can enjoy all of the delights of green grass, flowers, and flip-flops.

This spring is also my last spring in not-cold part of Central Asia, so I'm working extra hard to enjoy all of the sunshine, blue skies, and above-freezing weather.  Nur-Sultan hasn't seen temperatures above freezing since last year, and can't even begin to think about a thaw for another six weeks.  I know that I'll remember these warm February days with fondness when I'm getting acquainted with a block heater in two winters.  

But for now, I'm going to enjoy my early spring.  It turns out that Phil might have been right about the US, but he was dead wrong about Uzbekistan.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Happy Birthday, William!

Today William turned four.  His birthday is actually this coming week, but I'm not a stickler about doing things on their exact dates if other dates are more convenient.  We've had several Christmases on a day other than December 25, and everyone was just as festive.  Brandon has a busy schedule this coming week, so celebrating on a weekend made more sense this year.  Plus, William isn't that aware of what dates are.  And also, who would argue with having their birthday early?

For his birthday activity, we went to a local trampoline park.  We hadn't been in maybe a year (definitely not since March), so Elizabeth had a whole new world to discover and was beyond excited to have an entire room full of trampolines to crawl on.  I had to laugh as I watched her crawl from trampoline to trampoline, stopping to sit and bounce on every single one.  

I don't usually bounce with the children, but had to watch Elizabeth this time, so Kathleen and Sophia cajoled me into showing them my trampoline flipping ability.  It's been a long time since I was young and (much more) reckless, and although I pulled off the flip, it was a lot scarier than flips used to be.  William took advantage of my presence and made sure that I spent a lot of time jumping with him.  Which was fair, as it was his birthday Saturday.

The fun continued with lunch at a restaurant (also not done in over a year) and William's choice of movie for the evening.

Today we had his birthday meal of choice, spaghetti.  I have never made spaghetti in my entire life, so when he started asking for it, I couldn't figure out where he had even heard of it, much less eaten it.  Then I remembered that his current favorite book is Spaghetti With a Chance of Meatballs (because who doesn't love a book about food??), but I still couldn't figure out where he had eaten it, until I recalled his play dates at a friend's house.  I asked my friend if they had ever eaten spaghetti for lunch, and she said that yes, but only once.  But for William, I guess once was all it took.

For dessert he had chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.  When I brought up cakes, he first requested a red car cake, which got shot down.  I'm not a creative cake maker, so I gave him the option of white cake with brown frosting or brown cake with white frosting.  He opted for brown cake with brown frosting, choosing the best of both worlds.

One of the best parts of little kid birthdays is how easy they are to please.  For his present, I sent Sophia down to the local grocery store, where she picked out a set of three little cars for him.  She and Eleanor (the only currently solvent siblings) also bought him a set of little cars, and he was wildly happy when he opened his present.  My mom had asked for suggestions for a grandma present, and I told her not to worry because: 1. He's only four and doesn't need much more than a simple present, and 2. We're going to be getting rid of lots of toys in a few months anyway, so why buy more toys now?

So for William, it was a perfect birthday.  He got to make all the choices, blow out the candles, have cake, and add more cars to his collection.  I think that we could all learn a lesson from the happiness of four year-olds.  Happy Birthday, William!