Ghosts of Halloween past

It’s almost October, which means that we’re preparing to kick off some serious Halloween costume crafting. Back in late August, Jonah really wanted me to buy “spooky stuff” for the house, but it felt way too early even if we did put it all away till October. Then September raced by, and suddenly I realized that I only have five weekends till Halloween and I need to get cracking. Even though I’ve had a theme in mind for the kids’ costumes since March, this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the costumes we’ve done in the past, as well as some sources of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween was big in our house growing up. I grew up in a spectacular trick-or-treating neighborhood where, even now, folks say that you can easily hand out 700 pieces of candy by 6:30 p.m. My mom always made costumes for me and my sister, and my dad always took us around the neighborhood while my mom stayed back to keep the porch light on for the other trick-or-treaters. I don’t have vivid memories of my mom working on the costumes, but now that I do it for our kids I can only imagine that hours of work that she must have put in. My mom has a much more low-stress approach to crafts than I do (plus she’s crazy talented), so last year I loved being able to work on costumes with her at night (since we were living in their house).

Last year we did Octonauts, because the kids were all really into the show. I won’t elaborate on it because that one has its own post, but I wasn’t blogging in the years before that so I’ll share a few highlights from other Halloweens.

The previous year, Jonah set the theme by asking to be a John Deere tractor. I wasn’t really going to try to make him blend in with the equipment, so instead I sort of made him a tractor driver, or a farmer if you will. That led us naturally into a farm theme, so I made Jude a scarecrow and Vivi a chicken (a rooster, I suppose is more accurate).

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I didn’t document the process for any of these, but for the most part they were all pretty simple. Not quick, but simple. While it’s hard to tell from the photo, Jude’s overalls had patches sewn onto them, with straw sticking out from a number of places. I made his hat from burlap and twine, put him in a flannel shirt and called it a day. Vivi got a TON of attention while we trick-or-treated. Her costume was actually just a feather boa loosely tacked around a white long-sleeved bodysuit, orange leggings, and some baby shoes hot glued inside kitchen gloves. My mom helped us to make her little hat with the comb on top. Jonah had a diaper box painted in John Deere colors (no, I didn’t pull any Pantone or RGB codes, but I chose as closely as I could from memory), with reflective tape for headlights and tail lights. He seemed pretty pleased with the result.

The farm was actually our second year of diaper box costumes, since the previous year Jonah wanted to be a bulldozer (once again, I went for “bulldozer driver/construction worker”).

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I was pretty happy with the way this one turned out, especially since it was my first box costume. The bummer was that when it came time for trick-or-treating, he wouldn’t wear it. I carried it the entire time we were out. He only stepped inside once towards the end of the night to let me take a picture.

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The year before that was Jonah’s first Halloween. He was eleven months old and had just begun walking, but was still in that in-between place where crawling was much quicker. He was also too young to choose his costume, so I made him an octopus.

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I spent many an evening sewing buttons onto tights, and while he was too young to trick-or-treat, we did spend the evening with friends and I was proud of my efforts.

There are so many extraordinary costumes out there, and while none of mine have ever come close to that level of artistry or originality, there’s something important to me in the process of making them. Earlier this week I was actually looking up something Christmas-related and went back to a blog that was probably the thing that made me dream of blogging someday. While it doesn’t appear to be operational any longer, Sweet Juniper was one of the first blogs about parenting that I read hungrily, many years before I ever had children of my own. It was also a blog about Detroit, and a family that moved there from San Francisco, so while we were still firmly planted in New York it was a welcome glimpse of what it might be like to move away from a big city on the coast back to the Midwest of our youth. But maybe most of all it was a source of inspiration for the kind of parent I could only dream of being someday. It was written by a stay-at-home dad who created the most magical childhood for his daughter and son through exploration, endless curiosity, and a willingness to build or craft just about anything you can imagine. They were the kind of family that made all of their Christmas presents by hand (for real), so naturally their Halloween costumes were outstanding.

I hadn’t given much thought to Sweet Juniper in quite a long time, but as I poked around on it this week I realized what gratitude I owe that father for sharing his parenting adventures with the world. Even before becoming a mom I knew that creativity at that level was probably not in the cards for me, but I do have to say that parenthood has brought out my willingness to try, and to end up with something imperfect and maybe unimpressive, but to still feel great pride that I gave it a go.

This weekend Jonah and I have a date planned to shop for Halloween costume supplies, and he tells me that he’s going to help me this year. I’d worried that I hadn’t chosen costumes that are interesting or unique enough, but now I feel like maybe it’s the perfect year to let Jonah have some control of the process. Too often I’ve let perfectionism get in the way, but maybe what matters most is letting the kids see how much fun creation can be, no matter what we end up with.

The sandbox, and an affordable DIY sandbox cover

The one element of the swing set that hasn’t been complete since I posted about it was the sandbox. I know that there are a lot of strong feelings among parents about sand boxes and even sand at playgrounds. Lots of people seem to feel that they’re dirty and full of bacteria since they can easily become litter boxes for neighborhood cats, and some parents just don’t want the sand coming into their houses in every shoe and fold of clothing day after day (the struggle is real). I can understand both of those arguments, but for me the tradeoffs are worth it because our kids love sand play so much. I want to make our backyard a place where they have lots of options for entertaining themselves, and giving them a great sandbox as an option was important to me. Some good friends of ours in New York have a wonderful sandbox that was SUCH a hit with all of the kids, so that was my vision.

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Our friends’ sandbox in New York, and my reason for wanting a great one

When we chose our swing set plans, I chose it in large part for the size of the fort deck, which also turns out to be the size of the sandbox below. We went with 6’x6′ because I wanted to make sure that all three kids had plenty of space to play. Once my dad completed construction I figured that we could get sand in there within a couple of days, the easy part, right? We ordered a pallet full of “play sand” in bags from Home Depot, only to find a California 65 warning label that informed us that the sand contained known cancer-causing chemicals that were proven to cause organ damage. Naturally we were alarmed. As it turns out, silica (which is in all sand, more or less) is dangerous when inhaled, so the safety of play sand has a lot to do with the particle size. We talked to a number of people we trusted and decided to return the bagged sand to Home Depot (they were very gracious about picking it up and even refunded our delivery fee) and instead have washed sand delivered by a local landscaping company. Who knows, it could be exactly the same stuff, but psychologically it felt better. We also figured that if sand is dangerous, it’s the same stuff we played in as kids, so how awful could this really be?

We had one cubic yard delivered, dumped into our driveway, and borrowed a neighbor’s garden cart to transport it to the back. A cubic yard of sand is a lot of sand, y’all.

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Jonah was a big helper. He was totally into helping me shovel the sand into the cart and then into the sandbox.

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To try to avoid the neighborhood litter box problem I made a cover for it. I found a number of places that sell custom sandbox covers, but they cost roughly $80 and I just wasn’t willing to spend that on it. Instead, I bought a roll of affordable shade fabric that came with a lacing needle and cord, two six-foot pieces of PVC with end caps, and put it together in an evening after the kids went to bed. It cost around $30 total and it works great. Even better, I ended up using the same material to provide a barrier between the dirt and the sand (so that the kids wouldn’t mix the two if they dig all the way down). That saved me from having to buy a huge roll of landscaping material when I only needed six feet.

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Sewing two ends of the shade fabric onto the PVC was easy, and the needle and cord that it came with was perfect.

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The cover lays across the sandbox nicely, with the PVC weighing it down on two ends. It’s lightweight enough that it’s easy to roll up when the kids want to play, and it’s breathable, which means rain will go through rather than pooling on top and causing a mess when we want to remove it, and the sand can dry out beneath as needed. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and especially the price.

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The kids are loving it and have spent a lot of time in it over the past two days, and we look forward to sharing it with friends.

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The long-awaited swing set!

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We have been talking to the kids about the possibility of a treehouse / fort / swing set for what feels like forever. Before we ever found a house, Papa Doc had promised Jonah that he would build him a treehouse in our future yard. Of course we didn’t know whether or not we’d end up with a yard that had a suitable tree for an actual tree house (we didn’t) but Kristin and I always had a good-sized yard for play on our wish list, so I was sure we’d have room for something fun. I’ve been dreaming about having a space for outdoor living for ages, so I’ve been pretty motivated to make it special. (Gardening is another thing altogether;  we’ve pretty much ignored the actual plants so far, but one of these days we’ll learn how to take that on too). My dad built us an incredible play house on stilts when my sister and I were kids, so I knew what he was capable of.

I probably looked at hundreds of different treehouse kits online, trying to figure out which features I wanted ours to have, how large it should be, how sturdy one brand was compared to another. It was honestly really tough to tell one from the next with only photos and a few specs listed. A friend of mine from work had purchased one that he was happy with and recommended a blog post with a feature and buying guide. While I’m sure they aren’t the ultimate authority on swing sets, it was actually really helpful to consider their advice. I knew that I wanted swings, a slide, a large deck or fort (not just enough room to get on a slide, but plenty of room to hang out and play), and preferably a rope ladder or climbing wall, it narrowed my search. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if we wanted something high-quality it was going to cost close to $2000 (and you can easily spend far more than that if you get carried away). We don’t have that kind of a budget since we have three kids in full-time preschool, so we needed an alternative.

Fortunately, we happened to drop by a friend’s house on a neighborhood walk one weekend and the kids ran into the backyard when we stopped in the driveway to chat with the dad. When we went back there to retrieve them we saw their swing set, and it was great! I asked about it and found out that they’d purchased the plans and the hardware, bought the wood separately (from a provided lumber list) and DIY’d it. They even had their plans around the house so they offered to share them with us. After giving it some thought, I decided that I wanted to go with a slightly different version of the same set (the Trailblazer) because it had a 6’x6′ deck and all of the other features I was looking for. I ran the idea past my dad (who would be doing all of the work, so he had to be on board). He gave it a thumbs-up, so we went for it.

I didn’t have much of a sense of how long this would take; I’d read that even the kits can take roughly 20-25 hours for two adults to assemble. My dad brought over sawhorses, a table saw, a drill (although he ended up borrowing an impact driver from a friend, and said it made a huge difference), and probably a few other tools I’m forgetting, and set up shop in our garage. He had a trailer full of lumber delivered by a handyman friend who he trusted to pick out good wood (we used pressure treated pine), and went to work last week Tuesday.

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I’m not at all surprised by his handiness, but I’m honestly amazed by how quickly he put this together given all of the other estimates I’d read for a variety of sets. It took him less than a week of some partial and some full days, he estimates around 20 hours or so. On the first day, he asked me if Jonah might like to help him for a bit (he’d been talking about helping Papa Doc on this project for a long time) so I went to pick him up from preschool an hour early. He immediately ran down to the basement to get his toolbox.

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My dad let him ratchet in a bolt or two, but he lost interest pretty quickly and decided to just watch. The next day, when the kids came home from school the platform was up. Every day they’d run back there first thing to see what new progress had been made, and immediately climb on whatever was there. I should mention that it was probably key to progress that he worked on it almost exclusively while they were away at school. The interference and insistence on toddlers “helping” would have slowed things considerably.

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The swing beam and swings went up next, which was very exciting, along with the tarp for the roof. The angle on the a-frame for the swing beam is really wide, which bothers my dad a little bit visually, but it makes it ridiculously sturdy. Had he cut the beams shorter they could have sat at a narrower angle, but honestly I love how sturdy it is. You can set a glass of wine on the cross beam while the kids are swinging and it doesn’t even wobble (yes, I’ve tested this). My dad pointed out that this thing is WAY overbuilt. Literally anyone could climb all over this thing and it wouldn’t move.

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Next came the slide, which wasn’t included with the hardware kit so we were able to choose it. I wanted one with a weight limit that could handle adults as well because I wanted it to be good and sturdy, and we found this one at our local Home Depot. You need a 10′ slide for a 5′ platform, and fortunately it fit in my parents’ Four Runner. My dad showed up with the slide on a weekend morning, so all of the kids were there to watch him install it.

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I have to say that it does get really hot in the sun, so we may be hosing it down a bit this summer. Fortunately we have a shady yard and the set is almost entirely in the shade for most of the day.

The last item on the list was the cargo net, and that went in yesterday (not quite a week from when he started). When the kids came home from school they all fought to climb on it first.

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Oh, and there’s also a hammock! You can see it behind the fort in the photo above. That was only a partial impulse buy at Target this past weekend. We’d talked about trying to attach a hammock to the set somehow but hadn’t quite figured it out. I looked at kid-sized hammocks on Etsy but they were surprisingly pricey for a tiny hammock, but then I happened upon these $19 nylon hammocks in the seasonal section and grabbed one, figuring we’d see if we could make it work. My dad put a hook into one of the posts and attached the other end to the fence and that was it (along with a couple of carabiners and some cute yellow chain for length). It just happened to be the perfect distance from the fence.

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The kids are so in love with all of this. Every morning when they wake up they ask go outside before anything else, and at the end of the evening it’s tough to pull them away to get them into bed.

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On this week leading up to Father’s Day I couldn’t be more thankful for my dad, our loving, handy Papa Doc who put so much sweat and love into making the yard special for the kids. The final step is to get sand into the sandbox under the fort. It’s arriving on Friday; thirty six 50-pound bags to be exact. I still have some grass to dig out, and we considered making it twice as deep, but once we realized how much sand we would need I decided to leave it as-is and see if it suffices.

Here’s how the total budget shook out:

  • Plans and hardware (including swings, cargo net, and tarp): $399
  • Lumber: $280 (which is WAY cheaper than the plans estimate, but maybe that’s a Michigan thing?)
  • Slide: $189
  • Sandbox sand (1 cubic yard): $75 including delivery
  • Labor: FREE (thanks, Papa!)
  • Total cost: $943

It really ended up being SO much less expensive than a comparable kit might have been.

Also this past weekend I put up string lights on the patio, running from the garage to the apple tree and back, and I love the way it makes the whole patio feel: festive, like we’re setting up for a party (except that I’m an introvert so I sat out there by myself till 11:00 the other night and loved it). And we have fireflies! I’ve been dying to see if we would get them. We sat out there with Vivienne when she wouldn’t go to sleep a few nights ago and spotted them with her.

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A week or so ago I heard the poem The Gate by Marie Howe, and the last five lines have really stayed with me.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

I have a lot of “This” moments lately, and the majority of them seem to be happening outdoors.

We eventually put sand in the sandbox, and that post is here.

A patio furniture makeover (or “why buy it when you could spend three weeks ruining your garage floor”)

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When it comes to home projects I wouldn’t say that I’m especially handy. When the people on home shows are searching for a fixer that they can “put their stamp on” I’m genuinely perplexed. Sure, I have a small and modestly equipped toolbox and a cordless drill, and according to Jonah that makes me a construction worker, but I cannot imagine why anyone would want to spend every weekend engaged in manual labor if they didn’t have to.

Now that I’m a homeowner, however, I’m beginning to see the appeal of learning how to care for and maybe even improve our space a little bit. And if I can do it myself while saving some money, that’s even better, right?

We were fortunate to get a number of money-saving hand-me-downs from my parents when we moved into the house, and one of those was a patio set that my parents have had since I was around Jonah’s age. I have lots of memories of it in the backyard where I grew up, and I love that it has so much history. It’s a nice sturdy wrought iron set, but two of the chairs were broken, and the whole set had some rust and a lot of wear.

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When my parents gave it to us, my dad suggested that we could paint it if we wanted to, and both K and I thought that sounded like a fun way to brighten up the backyard. I’ve never spray painted anything in my life, so I had few appropriate expectations going into this project. I did a little bit of Pinterest exploration to gather tips, chose a color that we were excited about (Rustoleum Lagoon), and went shopping for supplies.

I was thinking of painting it on the patio, and I’m so glad that I called my dad beforehand to say, “How on earth do I do this? Isn’t it all going to end up covered in leaves and flower petals?” He told me that the garage was a far better choice (no kidding) so I spread out a number of plastic tarps across the center of the garage, moved the furniture inside, and got to work. After washing it and letting it dry, I started with a coat of Rusty Metal Primer, which turned it all a solid rust color.

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This phase of the project gave me a pretty solid understanding of how unpleasant this whole experience was going to be. I learned a number of valuable lessons, which I will now pass along to you, dear reader.

  1. Have appropriate protective clothing, gloves, and footwear. I failed to buy/have appropriate painting clothes (I tossed a lot of old stuff in the move) so I started in an old t-shirt and leggings, with plastic grocery bags tied over my shoes. It didn’t take long to realize that when you step in paint on a thin plastic tarp while wearing grocery bags as shoes, your feet will stick to the tarp and tear it to shreds. Also, if you have a lot of exposed skin, you’ll end up scrubbing paint off of your face, arms, and ankles with industrial hand cleaner like I did. It was only after the first day that it occurred to me that I should probably also have a mask on, since the fumes are absolutely awful, and that eye protection wasn’t a bad idea. Those also prevented a lot of the face paint issues.
  2. Buy way more paint than you think you’ll need. The first challenge was that no one seemed to carry the color that we wanted in gloss, which is what we were interested in. We initially bought the six cans that our local Walmart had in stock, thinking that surely it would be sufficient (which is so completely laughable at this point, since this project required so much paint), and ultimately ended up also buying the last four on Amazon as well as an additional four at a Walmart two hours away. I also used a clear gloss coat because the paint guy recommended it and…I mean, it can’t hurt, right? I had no idea what I was doing, but I can tell you first-hand that running out of paint when you’re all suited up and just want to finish this beast is not a lot of fun.
  3. Tarp everything. I’m so glad that we didn’t do this on the patio because our house would probably be teal right now. While I put tarps down on a pretty wide area, a huge portion of the garage floor (a perimeter of at least a couple of feet on all sides) is teal now, as is a portion of our driveway, the threshold of the door to the mudroom, and a plastic car of Jonah’s is covered in a fine layer of rusty metal primer. I had no idea how far spray paint spray would fly, and I’m sure that being outdoors only exacerbated the problem. Fortunately K has been very understanding about this.
  4. Budget lots of time. I waffled about including this one, because if you’re a skilled spray painter and you’re highly efficient, you can probably do this far more quickly than I did. Here’s the thing though: spray paint is weird. You either have to finish the job within an hour (or so) or you have to wait something like 48 hours to put on your next coat. Because we kept running out of paint I wasn’t able to finish very much of it in one block of time, so I’d get a layer on and then know that I had to wait at least two days before I could come back to it. The whole thing took me two or three weeks of very spread out painting sessions.

When I was in New York, a friend asked me what project I was working on that I was really excited about. I asked her if it was possible to be excited about a project but also hate everything about the process. After finishing the table and knowing that I had four chairs ahead of me, I declared that we should have just bought new, colorful patio furniture. I’m not sure that we saved all that much money ($60 in welding to repair the broken chairs, roughly 25-30 cans of paint, plastic tarps, rubber gloves, disposable masks, safety goggles), and the process wasn’t the slightest bit enjoyable, but I do really like the end result. It makes the patio a lot more fun, and the kids seem to love it. They wanted to eat dinner at the table the first night that it was back out on the patio (even though it was something like 55 degrees out).

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While the furniture was in progress in the garage, they would come home from school and tell me how pretty the chairs looked, which was surprisingly gratifying.

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I’ve been looking forward to making our yard more playful, and I feel like this is a big step in that direction. My parents return from Charleston in a week’s time and the next big project on the agenda is a swing set (despite Jonah’s faith in my construction worker abilities, that’s way out of my league – we need to call in Papa Doc for that one). I’ve been debating between a kit and a total DIY approach and you would think that this experience would have made that choice clear, but since I expect a swing set to be a ton of work no matter how we slice it I’m still undecided. More to come on that one when it happens.

Mama K’s sneaky Mother’s Day surprise project

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I just got back from another work trip to NYC this afternoon. Since it was the second trip, we all went into it with a tad more confidence that we could get through it, but that didn’t make leaving easy. I was eager to get back to my family, and I knew coming home that today was going to be a little bit hectic because I’d be taking Jonah to a bouncy-house birthday party almost as soon as we left the airport. He fell asleep in the car on the way to pick me up, and I let him stay there and sleep while I ran into the house to quickly put on a clean shirt and throw my hair into a ponytail. At some point I stepped towards the great room and Kristin told me that I wasn’t allowed to go near the backyard because there was a surprise, but Jonah wanted to show me.

I took him to the birthday party and when we got back I mentioned that there was some sort of surprise. He remembered, and took me to the windows to show me two pretty blue planters (a hand-me-down we’d claimed from my parents old house when they sold it) full of flowers. Kristin knows how excited I’ve been to get our backyard and patio ready for a season of outdoor living, one of the most significant reasons that we moved back to Michigan in the first place, so she took it upon herself to do a planting project with the kids this morning as an early Mother’s Day gift for me. I got teary when she told me that they all participated and that she even made sure to take photos of the process because she knew how meaningful that would be for me. She was right. There’s nothing better.

I can’t narrate this project for you because I wasn’t here, but I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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See that table? It’s going to get its own post sometime soon. It’s my contribution to the patio-beautification effort and while I’m hating nearly every second of the actual process, I’m hopeful about the results. More to come when I finally finish.

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Naturally there were construction vehicles involved in the transferring of soil.

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There aren’t as many photos of Jude because, as K tells it, this project went the way most projects go: everyone started strong, and Vivienne was by far the most dedicated (although I feel like the photos show a pretty strong effort from Jonah as well). Jude was on his scooter for much of the planting, it seems.

Kristin even told me that now she feels energized to do lots more of this and really dig into gardening (see what I did there?). I hated yard work as a kid but I too have been feeling somewhat inspired and interested in figuring out what’s out in our yard and trying to make it beautiful. We’re total amateurs and right now the garden portion of the yard is about 80% weeds (we think – we honestly have no idea) but this Mother’s Day project is so inspiring and full of love, I can’t wait to do more with the kids. K knows me so well, and the photos put the love right over the top.