B. C. – Before Crying

Leaving Los AngelosI am writing this a day early. I normally write and post my weekly essay on Sundays but I am currently on a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore and filled with emotion, so Saturday it is.

In N Out BurgerWe have been in LA since Wednesday afternoon, my husband and younger daughter. Upon arrival we had dinner at In-N-Out Burger on Sepulveda, as recommended via Twitter by Food Network and NYC chef extraordinaire Alex Guarnaschelli. It was a very good burger, one of the best I’ve had, certainly the best bun I’ve ever had on a burger. I had the single, no cheese, but with “secret” animal sauce, which tastes an awful lot like McDonald’s “special” sauce for the Big Mac. The fries, meh. Sorry, Alex.

Brunch at Mel'sAfter this apparent LA right of passage, we checked in to our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn on Highland. This is the way people talk in LA and about LA destinations, be it a restaurant, a hotel, or an entertainment venue. First you say the destination and then you say “on …” and you say the street. We left our rental car with the valet and headed inside, struggling with beaucoup de luggage. To the random by-passer, we looked like any normal family on a sightseeing vacation over spring break, but we were anything but.

Beautiful Plants at HotelTom and I had packed light, one small carry-on each; I also had my ever present Vera Bradley school bag and Tom had his travel briefcase. We only needed a few changes of clothes each whereas our daughter had packed nearly all of her earthly possessions, including bed linens and towels. We settled into our room and found spots to park her two enormous rolling suitcases and large duffel. The hotel was nice, the lobby very fresh and modern, the room a bit tired but clean and pleasant. Tom and I left our daughter in the room to shower and sort through and reorganize her luggage while we headed downstairs to the hotel bar to have a drink. It had been a long day and an exhausting one.

Joan's on ThirdOn Thursday we had a leisurely morning in the room and then headed out to have lunch at Joan’s on Third, another tweeted recommendation from my BFF (not really, JK) Alex Guarnaschelli. I had tweeted several famous tv chefs and asked for recommendations for eating in LA on a school teacher’s budget. Alex was the only one who replied and both her recommendations were spot on. Lunch at Joan’s on Third was fabulous and reasonable.Joan's on Third salad trio

After lunch, we drove around for a bit and then happened upon the Samuel French Bookstore on Sunset Blvd., and being both book and theatre fiends, we parked and went in. We spent an hour or so in there browsing the published scripts of plays, librettos of Broadway musicals, and screenplays of movies and TV shows. We each picked out our selections and then bought some souvenirs for our older daughter at her home in Pittsburgh. Since we still had down time until our drive to Santa Monica for dinner with some East Coast friends and we were all feeling a bit jet lagged from the three-hour time difference, we went back to the hotel to rest a bit.

Samuel French Bookstore

Samuel French Bookstore

This is a perfect example of the way my family likes to vacation. We are foodies and we want to sample the cuisine and culture of the places we visit so we spend a lot of time beforehand researching the local food scene. We plan out our sightseeing itinerary the same way, with a lot of research and googling before we even leave home. My husband sets up a file folder with all the info we will need to do the things we want to do, see the things important to us, and eat and drink like the locals at the best – but not always the most expensive – places our destination has to offer.

Hollywood at NightConversely, we do NOT run around non-stop from dawn to dusk trying to cram in every single tourist attraction or photo opportunity found in the normal guidebooks or on recommendations from friends who like that sort of thing. We sleep in, dress, have coffee, and then go out for brunch. We do one main sight-seeing activity, and then stop for lunch at one of our pre-planned destinations. We do another sight-seeing activity or tourist attraction, and then we head back to the hotel for a rest before dressing for dinner.

Beauty at a Parking Garage

Beautiful flowers everywhere, even on the parking garage

We might spend an entire day in one museum, having lunch in the museum cafe, and then take our time wandering through the gift shop before heading back to the hotel to rest before dinner. Sure, this isn’t the ideal vacation for most people (“You can sleep at home, why nap on vacation?”), and we’ve had almost 27 years of married life to perfect this but it works for us, and we are thrilled to bits to be away from the normal stresses of everyday life. We don’t want to add any stress to our days away from home, so we don’t want to rush around and try to cram in everything a city has to offer in one three-day weekend.

 

Dinner at The Lobster

Dinner at The Lobster on Ocean, Santa Monica

Later that afternoon, as planned, we drove to Santa Monica and had drinks at my friend’s adorable and Disney-decked out studio apartment, complete with a studio apartment-sized sectional sofa, the absolute cutest thing I have ever seen. It was great catching up with her and her boyfriend, who was also visiting from the East Coast, over wine and cheese. She left DC a year ago to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in California where she could soak up the sunshine and indulge her obsession with all things Disney. Last summer, just before she and her father left to drive to LA with her PT Cruiser stuffed to the gills, she came over to my house and had lunch with me, while we talked about this big adventure she was undertaking, moving to the West Coast all alone, getting an apartment, getting a job, making new friends, starting completely over without her parents, her sister, or her boyfriend.

Black Pasta with Shellfish

Shellfish with Black Pasta (squid ink)

After wine and cheese, we walked to the Santa Monica pier to our restaurant, The Lobster on Ocean, where just after being seated, with the perfect timing of a Spielberg-directed movie set, we watched the sun set over the glorious Pacific Ocean.

Sunset on Santa Monica Pier

Beautiful sunset over the Pacific

Dinner was delicious, and even better, the fun stories and laughter at our table while my husband and I enjoyed the company of these three young people, my friend and her boyfriend and our younger daughter, all at the beginning of their adult lives, where the road stretches ahead on what seems like an infinite path, filled with endless possibilities for happiness and success. They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t care. They have their devices, Google, and social media, and they can find out what they want when they want, learning on the fly so to speak. I am envious of their station in life while also satisfied that some of that is behind me.

Mel's Drive-InOn Friday, we had brunch at the famous Mel’s Drive-in on Highland and then drove to several apartment complexes near Hollywood, including the one where my daughter will be staying temporarily with a friend while she finds a roommate, a job, and an apartment of her own. Now you can see why this trip was not just a normal vacation over spring break; this was mama bird and papa bird crossing the country and returning home without baby bird to an empty nest.

Tacos at Guisado's

Authentic tacos and delicious!

After our apartment hunting, we returned to the hotel and rested a bit before going out for our final dinner together in LA. For this selection, we went with the recommendation of a friend of my older daughter, who has been living in LA for a few years. I sent her a message via Facebook asking for recommendations for Mexican food, and she sent us to Guisados on Santa Monica Blvd., for what might have been the best and most authentic tacos I’ve ever had. Back at the hotel after dinner, we presented our baby bird with a little memento, a picture frame containing a family photo of us four taken on Easter Sunday when we were in Pittsburgh last week visiting our older daughter. Easter Sunday Family PhotoAt the time, I posted the photo on my Facebook page and captioned it, “Our last family photo for a while,” which was both heartbreaking to type and to see in black and white on my Facebook page every time I checked my notifications for my many friends who responded to that sentimental tearjerker of a caption.

Succulents Thriving in CA weather

Succulents thriving in the LA weather

In the weeks running up to this trip, I’ve had a few trial runs for this morning. While out walking the dog or driving alone in my car, I would go through the mental scenario of dropping her off at her friend’s apartment, helping her in with her luggage, hugging her goodbye, and then starting to cry. Once in the car, and out of sight, I would imagine myself sobbing openly, the same way I did when we left baby bird at college for the first time, in the most dismal and decrepit dormitory room I’ve ever seen, a single room turned into a double because of overbooking on the school’s part, so small in fact that the girls had to decide which pieces of their standard dorm furniture to eliminate so they could both fit in the room at the same time.

Puccini with LA souvenir

Puccini with his LA souvenir: a cow’s hoof from a farmers’ market

Dropping off big sister the first time was also terrible but at least we had baby bird with us to take home for two more years. Now it is just the two of us, and the dog of course, but as much as I love that little 16-pound ball of fur, un-house-broken shenanigans, and barks, it is NOT the same as my darling daughters.

 

Lindsey's Apartment BuildingSo on to today, and B. C. We got up, dressed, packed, and checked out. We headed over to her friend’s apartment on Sanborn, and all four of us made our way up to the second floor of this beautiful old building with our daughter’s copious amounts of luggage. Her friend’s home was also a studio, most decidedly not Disney-decked out, but sparingly curated with artsy posters, books, and a free-standing “cat tree” for Ziti and Willow. She then took us downstairs and out back where we found a “secret garden” of sorts, expertly planted with herbs, succulents, and flowering plants and lovingly cared for by two guys who live in the apartment above.

Maddie at Joan's on Third

Our beautiful, smart, talented baby bird

It was a beautiful, peaceful respite in the middle of LA. I can see our daughter sitting out there, with her laptop, writing away on one of her screenplays or scripts. Her friend seemed like a really nice person and when we thanked her for taking in our daughter temporarily, she commented that when she moved to LA six years ago after college, a lot of people had helped her get started so she wanted to pay it back. How lucky we are that the world still has people in it who want to pay it back or pay it forward.

Saying Goodbye

All smiles, BC

And so, after many trial runs, it was time for the real deal. We three walked downstairs to the rental car, where we hugged and I cried, and she got a little pink as well. We promised to text when our plane landed and she promised to call and text and stay in touch with us while she gets started and gets settled in her new home away from home. She ran through the events she had planned for the next few days, I think as reassurance for me that she had this and she was going to be okay. We kissed again and I got in the car and pulled away, and as I had imagined and practically scheduled for myself, I began to sob. I cried all the way to LAX (which by the way is on Airport Blvd.) and every time I thought I had regained control of myself, a new wave of anxiety, fear, and panic would sweep over me, reducing me to sobs and puddles of tears. So many what ifs and things out of my control. So many things to worry about. So many miles between us.

 

Almost Home

Approaching BWI

Once at the airport, bags checked and through security, we headed straight for the food court area for sustenance, both liquid and solid. My husband, who had somehow managed to remain quite stoic throughout the whole cutting of the cord, said, “You did good.” After a cold beer and a hot pizza, I felt better.

On Board Selfie Coming Home

Just us returning home

Mama bird and papa bird then sat alone at the gate, watching younger parents with their toddlers, tweens, and teens, negotiating the use of devices, checking battery power, doling out snacks and drinks, all the while feeling empty nest in a very poignant way. Later today, when we land and carry our small bags to our car, we will touch base with baby bird and check in with her on her first day living in LA, spreading her wings and reaching for the stars. Godspeed little bird, we love you. ❤️

 

What’s It Like Being the Mother of the Pied Piper

After graduation, I decided to stay in the town where I had lived and attended college for four years. I started working for a Kelly Girls temp agency and eventually landed a full-time position as a receptionist at a busy downtown law firm. At the end of the summer, my younger brother, Tommy, moved into his freshman dorm on the same campus where I had lived and thrived and flourished for four years. I knew nearly everyone on campus, both in the faculty as well as the student body. I was a member of a popular sorority, had run (unsuccessfully) for student government president, and was active in several on-campus clubs. I belonged to a service organization and attended weekly Mass in the on-campus chapel. Yet, within a few short weeks of the start of the new school year, I was being asked, “Are you Tommy Blanchard’s sister?” In a very short span of time, he cut a wide swath through the campus and made a lot of friends. He pledged a popular fraternity and it seemed that everywhere I went, people already knew him, and loved him.

Maddie and Mom first day of subbing Oct 16Fast forward nearly forty years, and I am experiencing this same sweet but still disconcerting situation. On October 16, 2015, my younger daughter, 23-years old and one year out of college, started substitute teaching at my school, the school where I began my own teaching career in the fall of 2007. She had completed the paperwork and background check only the week before she got the first call for a job: PE, not one of the strongest subjects for the Ardillo girls (myself included). Maddie teaching PENonetheless, she rode into school with me and we posed for a picture of our first day teaching together, both in the requisite dress code of the day, “Jersey Day”. When my homeroom came in at the end of 5th period to drop off their bags to go out to recess, they were all shouting at once, “Your daughter is the BEST!” I’m pretty sure she had never gotten that experience out of a PE class where she was the student!

A week later, she was called in to sub for social studies, much more in her bailiwick. The next day, when my 7th grade classes came in for literature, my own lesson plan was diverted for several minutes while they told me how great my daughter is and how much fun social studies was with her. Another day, another subject, she subbed for the other language arts teacher, her real strong suit, where she got to read and discuss passages from a Neil Gaiman book. On to 7th and 8th grade religion classes on another day and 6th-8th grade science on yet another. She received thumbs up from every single student who talked to me about her; even students who are quiet and passive in my own classroom were enthusiastic about their experience with her.

My birthday 2015Although she wasn’t crazy about babysitting when she was a teenager, she occasionally did take jobs to help out my friends and sometimes to cover for her sister when she had overlapping social activities. The response was always the same when I spoke to the families after, the kids all loved Maddie.

Leading retreat Nov 2014Last November, my principal hired her to lead the annual 8th grade overnight retreat. She took the assignment very seriously, writing up her talks and finding just the right music to play while students journaled after each talk. She developed bios and reflections about three saints and created prayer cards of the three saints for each of the 8th graders. In her own unique way, she was able to bring together a gaggle of rowdy teens to sit quietly and listen to spiritual reflections and talks about living your faith as a teenager and young adult. For days after the retreat, the 8th graders continued to talk about her and the impact she made on them in just a little over 24 hours.

Maddieinhospital (2)

Maddie being tenderly held by her big sister, with Grandma Margaret and Dad close at hand

A few weeks ago, at our annual fall parent/teacher conferences, one mom began the conference saying how much her daughter talked about Ms. Ardillo and what a great teacher she was. The mom, confused, said that this student’s older sister had had me for two years already so they were all familiar with Ms. Ardillo. Her daughter then said, “No, Mom, not Mrs. Ardillo, MS. ARDILLO, her daughter.” We had a good laugh about it, and I pondered at the likelihood that this parent/teacher conference was more about her daughter as my daughter’s student instead of her daughter as my student!

Maddie on guitarMaddie really is the good-natured and compassionate version of the Pied Piper. Instead of a magic pipe flute, she is a self-taught guitar and piano player, singer, and songwriter, and whenever she begins to play, people flock about her. Having written the music and lyrics for a musical while still in high school, she workshopped it at my school’s annual arts festival one year. It was a huge success and one of the students involved is now a high school senior, still acting and singing on stage. I saw him recently in a production of Les Misérables. After the show I was congratulating his mother on his performance and she said his real love of musical theatre all began with that arts festival workshop with Maddie.

MaddieatKennedyCenter (2)So, what makes her so special? I have given this a lot of thought, and as I explained to the mom at the parent/teacher conference, I truly believe it all boils down to one personality trait: her complete and total acceptance of a person at face value. She does not judge, she does not criticize, she does not compare. She takes each new friend as they are, and looks for the best of them, and that is what she reacts to. And, after all, isn’t this what people really want? To be accepted as they are? To be given a chance? To have their negative traits and personal flaws overlooked in lieu of their goodness and strengths? And, that is what Maddie does with each and every new person she encounters. This is certainly a special gift and grace from God, because I know that it is not one of my strengths. Her father and I try to be good people and we try to be the best we can be, but Maddie did not fully inherit this from our genes.

Maddie and dogShe has always looked out for the underdog. In second grade she came home and told me she had received a recess detention, and had to spend part of recess indoors with her teacher. The next morning at drop-off, I went in to the school to find out what had happened, as I couldn’t get a clear story from my eight-year-old daughter. The teacher just laughed and said it had all been handled, not to worry. I pressed on and she eventually told me that she “had” to give Maddie a recess detention because she had been involved in a playground altercation, but I hadn’t been called because she was trying to do the right thing. Her friend was being bullied by a boy, so she pushed him down and sat on him until he apologized. He ran inside crying to tell the teacher what Maddie had done. The bullying stopped, her friend recovered, and Maddie had a brief time-out with the teacher straightening the bookshelves, a job she surely must have loved, given her love of books even at that young age.

After a long day of teaching Nov 6We worried when she went off to college, living on her own four and half hours away, that she would be taken advantage of because of her good-hearted nature and accepting personality. We needn’t have worried; however, she survived her four years just fine, making friends left and right, not only on her own campus, but also on her sister’s campus ten blocks away and all over downtown Pittsburgh.

Maddie birthday 2015In a few months, Maddie is planning to move to California, to put her screenwriting degree to work and to pursue her dream job of writing for film and television. We will worry again, and we will miss her greatly. We enjoyed her return home to live with us after college (empty nesting is not all what it is cracked up to be), and we enjoy cooking together and watching our favorite TV shows. But, for as much as she is known for her very special people skills, she is a very talented writer who deserves to see her words on the big screen or on our television sets at home. pied piperAs she leaves all that is familiar to her, and heads off to the land of perpetual sunshine, I don’t worry about her being lonely or homesick for long. All she will need to do is don her Pied Piper persona and she will once again find herself the loved and cherished friend of many. Play on, Pied Piper, play on!