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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Beauty of Long Distance Parenting

“Mom! Going to Jazz Fest. They’re literally calling for a monsoon!” the daughter texted from New Orleans this spring.

“Great! Have fun!” I responded, and turned my attention back to the Words with Friends game in which I was finally beating the mostly unbeatable Tom Shea.

Sure enough, it poured.   

“MOM! I ALMOST DROWNED! Don’t you care??” the daughter text-screamed that evening.


After all, almost is the operative word. 

“Mom!” the middle child shrieked on a rare phone call in April.  “I think I have bed bugs.”

“That’s nice, dear. Make sure you rid of them before we come for graduation,” I said and turned the volume up on The Voice.

“Mom!” my youngest texted the day after the 30-inch blizzard this winter. “I don’t have any boots or gloves."

I didn’t respond.

It took me many, many years, but I have finally found my parenting niche. What I excel at. What I enjoy. What I have perfected. 

Parenting from a distance.

When my kids are away from home, whether it’s across the country, out of the country or just halfway down the turnpike, I am the parent I have long aspired to be. The kind who can parent without heart palpitations and sweaty palms. The kind who allows their kids to feel a little bit of discomfort. Cook their own omelets. Call AAA for themselves, for the third time in a month. The kind who believes in the power of learning that actions have consequences -- whether it's forgetting a key and getting locked out of an apartment or forgetting to take the smelly trash bag out before leaving for Spring Break.

I think of my kids with fondness when they’re away. I take pride in their independence. Their fortitude. Their courage. And their character.

When they're not around, I never, ever fear for their safety, let alone their well-being. I assume I’ll hear if something happens. And if it does, my biggest worry is that the authorities won’t wait until morning to call. As a matter of fact, until I recently started playing Words with Friends into the wee hours, I not only left my cell phone downstairs charging in the kitchen, but turned off the ringer on my bedroom phone. 

When my kids are away from home, I don’t think about what they are eating or if they remember to turn off the stove when they’ve finished cooking. I don’t wonder what classes they’re taking, or if they’re even going to class. I don’t care if they drink too much, stay up too late or fight with their friends. 

 They live their life. I live mine. They show their love with an occasional emoji and I show mine through Venmo. 

 But, inevitably, they come home and all that parenting progress I’ve made crashes and burns.

The daughter was coming home for a brief stint a couple weeks ago before traipsing off to Ecuador. Her flight was delayed so many times because of imperceptible weather conditions that it ended up taking her 24 hours to get home.

“Mom!” she texted when she finally got to Chicago and learned her connecting flight was canceled. “Should I get a hotel room?”

“No,” I answered. “Put your head on your bag and sleep on the floor.”

Two days after her sleepless night in the airport, she went off to the Governors Ball, which has nothing to do with Andrew Cuomo, let alone Chris Christie. It’s a three-day musical festival in New York City featuring a wide-range of performers. Most I've never heard of, but one I saw on Keeping up with the Kardashians. Since we’re just a stone’s throw from the city, the daughter mostly took public transportation in and out. I say mostly, because she conned the father into a ride or two. After all, paying for tolls with our EZ pass is way preferable to pulling out one’s own Metro Card. 

The forecast was for rain.

I left her snacks on the kitchen counter and pummeled her with angst-induced questions. I asked her what shoes she was going to wear and if she cared if they got muddy. If she thought she'd be too cold in a sleeveless top. If she would leave when it rained. And I even asked her if she wanted a plastic bag for her phone.

I have to give her credit. Now that she’s twenty-four, the eyes don’t roll quite so far back into her head. And she's better at biting her tongue. Rather than ridicule my ridiculousness, she merely responded with a request for cash, just in case the debit card didn't work. 

Being on home base rather than her usual 1313 miles away, I envisioned her alone and abandoned in a field in the midst of a lightning storm while the last of the soggy riders stampeded onto the (cash only) ferry. So, I dug deep in my pockets and gave her every dollar I had.

The youngest, who has turned into the most rebellious of the trio, is home for the whole, long summer. He is out most nights till well after 3 am. I don’t know what he’s doing, nor do I want to know, but I leave the hall light on. That way when I wake up every hour on the hour, I will know when he has made it home alive.

I ask him multiple times a week what time he's working and when. And on the days he has to be there early, I always, always wake up. I lie in bed straining my ears to hear if the shower goes on. And when I can no longer resist, I get up and go to the bathroom. On my way back to bed, I pause at his bedroom door and tell myself not to do it. But I do. Every time. 

I push open the door. 

“Don’t you have to get up?”  I ask in my most innocent voice.

“Mom. I don’t have to be there for a half-hour,” he grunts.

And uh, would it hurt to be on time? I think, but instead say, "Oh, sorry! I thought it was later than it is!"

Then I retreat back to my bed where I lie stiff as a board until I hear him pound down the stairs.

Somehow I forget that these kids manage to get themselves up all year long without me. Or maybe they don't. But I don't care if they're not under my roof.

I’m not bad as parents go. I’m really not. I never say no to anything. Not that my disapproval would make a difference to my of-age children anyway. I encourage them all to take chances, spend time with friends, seek out fun, try new things and never say no to an adventure. I feed them. I talk to them. On occasion, I will even defend them and their harebrained schemes when they're up against their ever-sensible father.

But when they're home, I just can't keep myself from reverting back to my poor parenting and barraging them with questions. Where did you go? Who was there? Do you need gas? Don’t any of your friends have to get up early for work? Did you eat breakfast? Do you want me to make you a sandwich to take to work? Did you clean your room? Did you check the air in your tires lately? Did you read that book your father gave you? Do you have your phone charger? Do you have a jacket? Do you have a water bottle? Do you know what time you’ll be home? Did you lose your razor? 

The only question they actually answer is, “Do you need any money?”

And somehow, I’m always surprised when the answer isn’t, “No, Mom. I make more than you do. I’m good.”

I love having my kids around. They're infinitely more interesting than they were as infants. More predictable than they were as toddlers. More pleasant than they were as teenagers. But, in oh so many ways, they're much more challenging now that they're grown.

In the olden days, our roles were clearly defined. I was supposed to worry. I was supposed to feed them. I was supposed to wake them. I was supposed to defend them. I was supposed to set limits and bedtimes and curfews.

Sharing a home with adult children is a whole different ballgame. Sometimes I'd love to go back to the days when I could strap them in the stroller or silence their screams with a pacifier. When I could trick them into going to bed early by setting the clocks ahead and keep them from going out at 11 pm. On a work night. I miss the days of being able to bribe them with candy, contain them with Disney movies and make them go to church.

Instead, I just have to hope that all that controlling didn't scar them for life. That wherever they go, whatever they do, that they do it with confident caution. That they listen to weather forecasts, traffic reports and their mother's advice.

And, that they'll remember to turn out the lights when they finally come home.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Father's Daughter

“It was like being on a constant cringe alert, wondering what in the world might come out of his mouth next,” I said to my spouse-to-be, early in our courtship. “That’s what it was like growing up with my father. Can you imagine?” 

“Uh, yeah. I think I can,” he responded.

But he married me anyway.

My father was inappropriate, politically incorrect and firmly believed that his way was the right way, especially if it had to do with raking leaves, saving money or driving a car.
But he was also full of fun and mischief and a whole lot of love.

He loved my mother completely, though that's not really saying much as there is nothing not to love about my mother. She was a perfect wife. But maybe that's because she thought he was a perfect husband. Even if he made her cringe.

And he loved his children.

My father was a man’s man. A football captain. A basketball player. A baseball star. He was one of those men who was equally proficient in building a house as in building an ALPO dog food empire, both of which were key components of our cushy lives.

He didn't get a single son. He got four stinkin' daughters, one after another. But, he did the best he could with what he got. He coached Oreland Girls’ Softball for years and never hesitated to give one of his daughters the MVP award when we deserved it, or to take us out for long and tedious batting practice or pitching lessons when we didn't. He taught us all to play golf, to lick ice cream cones properly and that bathroom talk was never taboo. Not even at the dinner table.

Every time we went to a restaurant, and I do mean every time, my father would try to pawn us off.

“Which one of the girls would you like to marry?” he’d ask handsome waiters as we squirmed in our chairs.

He’d also had a habit of praising our accomplishments in a somewhat exaggerated manner.

“This is my daughter Nancy, she’s the president of Eagle’s Eye,” which was a clothing company where she worked at a level far from the top. Or, “Betsy’s a famous advertising writer. She makes $50 an hour,” back when $50 an hour was more than I could ever imagine making.

He bought us Yum Yum, an ice cream store in Flourtown, when we were in high school. We all worked there and got paid the same $1 an hour (plus tips)  as everyone else. But when all was said and done and Friendly’s bought us out, he handed each of his daughters a bank book in which he had doubled our wages.

My father went to Dartmouth College and took a hiatus to serve in the Navy. He was a war hero who was shot down in the Pacific but luckily lived to tell the tale. He was a brutally honest, morally rigid, fun-loving fellow who never cursed except for that one time when he dropped a bowling ball on his foot. He loved to travel, loved to play golf and loved to watch the Phillies from his green leather chair in the den.  
My father was a larger-than-life kind of guy. He loved entertaining people with his stories. He loved making people laugh. And he loved helping the underdog.

Whether it was a golf caddy, an aging waitress or the worst softball player on the team, he had a way of making them feel special. 

Like, my sister Emily, who to this day still believes she was the favorite.

But I know that can’t possibly be true.

Because, I was clearly the favorite. My father lovingly called me The Director because surprisingly, even back then, I had to orchestrate everything. He used to tell me that my mouth would get me in trouble one day. But in the same breath brag that I was just like him. He even wrote me a poem:

Dear Bet
 You are the best yet.
Just like Dad, you get mad.
But just as fast, you get glad.
Just like Dad.

My father was a complicated creature. You couldn’t always gauge his reactions. You couldn’t always understand his reasoning. And you could never, ever guess what was going to come out of his mouth next. 

But he was a father who was always present, always cherished and always putting his family first.

And no matter how many years he's been gone, he'll always be in my heart. In my soul. And in my big mouth.

So, friends and family, I do apologize.

I’m sorry that the rest of your days with me will be filled with cringe-worth moments. 

Yet, I can't help but thinking there's a whole lot worse things I could have become than my father's daughter. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When You Know, You Know: A Love Story

“You’ll just know,” my mother told me when I was young and un-in-love and wondering if I would ever, ever find “the one.”

My father proposed to her the night they met, three dates later she accepted and three months later they were married. Nine months and six days after the wedding she gave birth to my sister, Susan. My mother loved every fiber of my father's being for every minute of the 49 years they had together. And while they surely had their moments, I never heard them fight. I never heard them curse. I never for one second of my life didn’t know for sure that they were meant to be together. 

I met a boy in a bar when I was in my mid-twenties. He was cute and funny and smart and just as my mother had promised, I knew. He was definitely “the one.” We had an uncanny connection and flirted into the wee hours of the morning. I gave him my number and went home, giddy and positively sure that I would be engaged within the year.

I never heard from him again.

I thought that my mother, who had never lied in her life (except, of course, for the fib she told about what happened to our dog, Fritz)  had let me down.

A few years later I was working at TV Guide magazine and deeply entrenched in a group of friends who worked together, hung out together, had a shore house together, played cards together...and still do. One of the guys had recently broken up with his girlfriend. Someone suggested I date him.  My initial reaction was neither, “Ewww, gross,” or  “No, he’s too good for me.” It was simply, “What an interesting thought. I wonder what would happen to our group of friends if it doesn't work out.”

My girlfriend planted the seed in both of our hearts and once I took that leap of faith, I knew my mother hadn’t lied to me after all. 

I knew. He was "the one."

Thirty years and three children later, I found myself in the midst of another twist of fate love story. Another story of being in the right place at the right time with the right friends. 

Julie Claire wanted to go to Sewanee, the good 'ol University of the South. She really did. She told me that the first time I met her. The small, picturesque, private liberal arts college tucked away in Tennessee was everything she wanted. The fact that it didn't have a basketball team worthy of recruiting the likes of Harrison Barnes didn't even cross her mind.

She knew.

But somehow, somewhat reluctantly, she ended up at the University of North Carolina instead. And within a week had found four of her future bridesmaids, all who could have easily ended up somewhere else. Lauren, who grew up in Colorado, was determined to go to college in California, but something sent her south. Molly, from New Jersey was destined for Duke, until she saw it and almost puked. Jenny from Cleveland just so happened to attend a soccer camp on the UNC campus and thought it was a pretty cool place. And Julianne, from another part of New Jersey, as usual, took the road less traveled and chose Chapel Hill over Boston College, her parents' alma mater. 

Geographically, religiously, politically, and physically different as could be, the five girls became inseparable. 

They knew. 

They would be friends for life. 

And along with those friends came their crazy families.

I wasn't planning on befriending the parents of my daughter's roommates. I had no interest in making friends with people I'd never see again after graduation. But, it happened anyway. In yet another serendipitous moment, Lauren and her parents met Stephen and Sandra at the airport on a trip to visit UNC. They live in a big, beautiful house in the heart of the town that soon became our home-away-from home, our local bar, our dance floor and the place we knew our girls would always be loved and welcomed. Stephen and Sandra are our Chapel Hill anchors, the girls' surrogate grandparents and our dear and cherished friends. All of us group chat regularly, commiserate together over stolen NCAA championships, love and support each other's children and reunion once a year at Stephen and Sandra's -- all the kids and all the parents. The same ones I thought I didn't need in my life six years ago.

But back to the romantic part of the love story. 

There isn't much to it, really. Julie met Joe in the beginning of their sophomore year, and that was it. 

She immediately started planning the wedding. And if you think I'm exaggerating, you don't know Julie Claire.

Because she knew. He was the one.

We parents took to Joe immediately and though we love his dashing demeanor, quick smile and humble intellect, all that really matters is that he loves Julie with all his heart and soul.

And so, there was never a doubt that we would all join our friend Ruth in her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina to witness the marriage of her dear daughter to the love of her life. Dan and Sally drove from Cleveland, Joe and Carla flew in from Denver, Tom and Jackie, my ever-loving spouse and I flew in from Newark and Stephen and Sandra drove over from Chapel Hill. Julianne came from Chicago, Molly from New Orleans, Jenny from Cleveland and Lauren from Colorado.

No amount of miles could keep us away.

Every wedding has its own love story. But that's not my story to tell.

I can only tell the story of what I know first-hand. And that is the story of a beautiful, blue-eyed bride and a handsome, beaming groom surrounded by love on their wedding day. A love so great that their groomsmen and bridesmaids kept their promise to the priest and showed up sober. A love that transcended the tragedy of Joe's parents' home burning down two weeks earlier. A love that had siblings toasting their brother and sister with wit and wisdom and Team Joelie buttons and T-shirts. A love of a mother who painstakingly perfected the bridal bouquets and orchestrated the tedious task of stitching together the most beautiful wedding quilt ever.  A love that included far-flung family members, new-found friends and childhood besties.  A love that can't be described. It can only be felt.

All too soon, the perfect wedding weekend was coming to a close. The DJ announced it was time for the last song. I wondered how we'd end the night. Would it be with Shout? Don't Stop Believing? Donna Summers' Last Dance?

But of course, it was none of those songs. 

As the music started, we clamored to the dance floor. Arm-in-arm, tears in our eyes, and some on our cheeks, Stephen, Sandra, Molly, Julianne, Jenny, Lauren, Carla, Joe, Sally, Dan, me, my spouse, Ruth, Jackie and Tom surrounded Joe and Julie with our love and sang at the top of our lungs to what has become our own love song.

In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina
Can't you see the sunshine
Can't you just feel the moonshine
Ain't it just like a friend of mine
To hit me from behind
Yes I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind.

It's where it all began. And where it will never end.

To friendship. To love. To twists of fate.

To the five girls who came to Chapel Hill, wide-eyed and wondering if they'd find what they were looking for.

And now they know.

They did.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Oh, God! You Got Me!

I’m one of those cold-hearted Christians. I believe in God because my mother taught me to. I go to church because my spouse wants me to. And I join committees because my friends ask me to.

And because I’m a better-safe-than-sorry kind of heathen, I also go to Bible Study, have taught Sunday School and always make the tuna salad sandwiches at the annual Holiday Fair.

It may sound somewhat impressive, but compared to many people at our little church in Leonia, I am but a peripheral Presbyterian, just trying to do the minimal amount to make it to heaven.

In January, the pastor of our church retired. Presbyterian “rules” dictated that we had to let her go in peace; that we shouldn’t contact her with our personal woes or our pastoral concerns. And certainly we shouldn’t whine about the constant stream of guest preachers in and out of the pulpit while we waited for “the one.”

Instead of embracing change, seeking support from my fellow congregants and at least trying to glean some inspiration from random ministers’ sermons, I did what all Christians of my caliber would do. I checked out.

After a long and arduous process, continuity came and Leah Fowler was hired as an interim pastor and I came back to church -- if for no other reason than to check her out. The deal is she’ll stay for a year to get us over the hump and if she likes us and we like her, she can apply for a permanent position. If not, we keep on looking for the person who will lead us into perpetuity, or with any luck, into the next decade. 

Leah seems to be everything a pastor should be. She a lovely person, full of great ideas and loving thoughts. She’s young enough to bring energy and old enough to bring wisdom. She delivers meaningful sermons and is spiritually sound. She’s a good catch.

Back in the fall, before our previous pastor departed, one of my favorite churchsters, Ginny Brown, made her annual plea, asking me to join the Session. I turned her down, with my usual empty promise that I’d really, really consider it next year.

The Session, according to my limited knowledge, is the governing body of our church. It’s made up of ten or twelve pious parishioners, who care about the inner workings of the church, chair important committees and sit through long meetings on the second Tuesday of every month. I know this because my spouse has been on Session more years than not in our 20-year tenure at the Presbyterian Church in Leonia.

My spouse is a model ruling elder, as they call those who serve on Session. He is a much more serious Christian than I will ever be. He scowls when I try to rile up the Peters’ grandchildren in the pew next to me. He rolls his eyes when I sing loudly and defiantly off key. And he believes that my inappropriate and sacrilegious comments should be saved for a night out with the girls rather than delivered at a church meeting with pious parishioners.

But somewhere between then and now a pseudo-friend made an interesting comment that caught me off guard and made me reassess my religious involvement.

“I am so jealous of you,” she said. "I want to be you!"

Which furrowed my brow, making me wonder what kind of hell she must be living in to think, even for a fleeting moment, that being me might be an upgrade. She of the fancy house and youthful skin, of the skinny waist and fashionable dress.

Those who know me best know how difficult it is to be me, and that I am not an easy person to be friends with, let alone live with. I battle demons on an hourly basis, equate my self-worth with a number on the scale, ruminate and regret 90 percent of the words that come out of my mouth (and at the rate they spew, that’s a lot of rumination) and question the motivation behind my every action, downplaying every good deed I’ve ever done.

And so, I just laughed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what she had said.

The next morning I was out on a 20-mile bike ride, giving me plenty of time to think deep and shallow thoughts. I got to contemplating the state of my life and wondering if pseudo-friend maybe had something there. After all, here I was out riding my bicycle on a beautiful spring morning in the middle of the week. Why do I get to bang out marketing copy from the comfort of my own home while so many of my friends have to board a bus to the city or dodge traffic to beat their bosses to work? Why, when I got breast cancer did I manage to make it through with a double mastectomy while my dear friend had to lose her hair and get sick to her stomach? How did I get kids who actually seem to like me when my friend who has done nothing more than devote her life to loving her children gets profane and venomous texts from hers? How did I get the one-in-a-million spouse who says, “Sail Away! Have fun with Patty! I’ll have a super supper waiting upon your return!” when so many of my friends “could never” go away without their husbands?

I could have gone on to question the fairness of life. Why some of us have so much, and others have so little, but at that point I swerved to avoid hitting a dead and bloody squirrel and a blasting horn broke me out of my reverie.

That was the point at which I had an epiphany.

I realized I should just stop questioning why. Stop looking for the but in every blessing. Stop looking over my shoulder wondering when the axe is going to fall. And maybe start believing that there might be someone up there who's ultimately responsible for all my good luck. 

Perhaps it was time to show my thanks and start giving back.

I may never spend the night at the Family Promise shelter with Linda McGarry. I doubt I’d go to Guatemala to build a bottle school with Suzanne Broffman. And I’d be hard pressed to pick up a brush to paint the sanctuary with Pete Shanno. I know I’ll never be selfless enough to tithe to the church, proselytize on the corner or praise Jesus on Facebook.

But I could certainly become a member of Session.

And so I did. On Sunday I was ordained as an elder.

“I’m actually a little bit nervous,” I admitted to our kind new pastor.

“Good,” she said. “That means it must mean something to you.”

Yeah, right. I said to my cynical self.

But when I knelt in front of the church and dozens of past and present ordained congregants laid their hands upon me, something happened. I can’t say I was moved to talk in tongues, but I was speechless. And for me, that’s pretty much one in the same.

I’m not sure they really know what they’ve gotten themselves into at the Presbyterian Church in Leonia, but as we all know, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

So, as I work on becoming a better person, a more charitable soul and a more involved parishioner, all I can say is, God help us all.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Every Picture Tells a Story, Don't It?

Every picture tells a story, don't it?
Every picture tells a story, don't it?
-Rod Stewart

“Welcome back! Did you have big fun?” was the text that greeted me from my ever-understanding spouse after seven phoneless days on the high seas.

“Sadly, we topped last year’s fun so there will be another repeat performance," I answered.

“Meet any new boyfriends?” he asked, perhaps hopefully.

“Many. I have lots of stories to tell.”

Our First Cruise
I’ve been going on cruises for the past five or six years with my high school friend Patty (who since retiring from her respectable position as a middle school principal no longer needs to be referred to by her alias, Penny, nor does she have to shy from the camera while sipping Lemon Drop Martinis). 

We went on a couple of action-packed cruise adventures in our early twenties, then took a hiatus to pursue husbands and careers. Because her husband no longer exists and my spouse would rather not exist than spend a week overindulging in a contrived and confined environment, Patty and I, who mock moderation, became perpetual travel companions. (Check out our past adventures here and here).  
Our First Cruise

I stayed at Patty’s house in south Florida for 24 hours after disembarking the Norwegian Escape last Saturday to reintegrate and detox before returning home to the many pressures of my empty nest. We sat on her lanai, she under an umbrella, me sunscreen-less, sweating my way to the perfect pink post-vacation hue. 

“Cruises are such guess-you-had-to-be-there vacations. I mean, how do we even begin to do our stories justice?" I chortled while flipping through my photo-filled phone.

“Every picture tells a story, don’t it, don’t it?” Patty belted out the lyrics to a familiar Rod Stewart song.

Patty brought a pink Polaroid camera aboard that served us well at Happy Hour. She’d snap a picture, print it out and give it to the victims to sign so we'd have documentation of their names. I’d then take a photo of the photo with my phone for our own personal portfolio and the Polaroid picture was gifted to our new friends.

It worked. Dozens of photos later, we had dozens of new friends.

So, how do you tell the story of a week on a cruise ship?

Patty and I have done a lot of fun things on our cruises throughout the years. We zip-lined through the jungles of Jamaica, bobsledded our way down a mountain, snorkeled off a precarious skiff in Cozumel, got soaked on a catamaran in St. Thomas and bobbed around in the Bermuda Triangle. We rented bicycles in the wilds of the Cayman Islands, set loose in the blazing summer sun with a single water bottle, no map and a “see ya later!”  We counted the toes on the cats that slithered about the Hemingway House in Key West and survived the Straw Market in Nassau. We walked up and down the hills of St. John, New Brunswick and cavorted through the coves of Tortola on an inflatable boat.

We bellied up to a beach bar and consumed ice-cold Painkillers with freshly grated nutmeg. We had cocktails with the captain and drank tequila shots at a Glow Party at the back of the ship at midnight with kids a third  of our age. We gambled and lost. We gambled and won. We pretended Patty was the wife of a famous rock star and the more we won at craps, the more the crowd believed us. We tried to hit all 22 bars onboard, making it only halfway around before we ended back at our home in The Haven. We baked in the sun. We hid from the Hairy Chest contest. We discovered there's a leader-board  for the most craft beers drunk in a week. We dressed and defiled the towel animals left by our room steward. We over-tipped, we under-tipped. We over-ate and over-drank. We saw good shows and bad shows and skipped mediocre shows, accidentally on purpose. We laughed. A lot.

But as much fun as we had with our sordid activities, we learned early on that it's the people, not the places, that make a cruise.

It was Cowboy, the bartender who recognized us from another ship.

It was the shop owner in St. Thomas who remembered me as the girl from Teaneck, New Jersey who bought the earrings made out of credit cards on a previous cruise. It was Marc, the bartender in The Haven, who concocted customized drinks, naming one the Betsy Face Punch.

It was Diane and Derek with their bright and respectful children. The lovely Katherine, a George Washington University student who conversed with us as if she actually cared what we had to say. And her brother Barrett, a soon-to-be freshman at Florida State, who was as handsome as he was personable. 

It was Larry and Cindy who drank good bourbon, lived the good life, and never, not once, felt the need to bore us with pictures of their grandchildren.

It was Debbie and Jen and Nicole and Haley who my sister, the owner of Travel Finesse, booked on the same exact cruise as us. She left the sleuthing up to us, challenging us to figure out who they were on our own. She didn't want to pre-introduce us in case we didn't like each other.  We found each other on the second day and, of course, there was nothing not to like.

It was Michael and Heather, the history professor who hid beneath her hat by day, who graduated from Pepperdine, the lovely college in Malibu where I had visited with my son and spouse just the week before.

It was the writer, Harmony, which may or may not have been a nom de plume, who gave me freelance tips, traveling with John who she had only known for the shortest of whiles. 

It was former Syracuse football star Marty and his fear-of-flying wife, Sandee, our next-door neighbors who kindly pretended they didn’t hear any of our balcony banter. 

It was Joann and Victor, whose warm and welcoming Staten Island smiles paved the way to a week of shared life stories over fancy cocktails served straight up with a twist of humor. 

It was Scott from San Antonio who has already sent us the dates of the next two cruises he's booked.

It was cute James and his even cuter wife, Karen, with their adorable Alabamian drawls. It was Laurie and Karen, fashionable girlfriends like ourselves traveling in tandem from Rochester. It was Jill and Jeff, a mismatched couple who trusted my jaded opinion on whether to bring another child into the world. (I said do it!)

It was the Ciociola's who traveled as a family so impressively independently. They all had dinner as a unit every night but you'd be hard pressed to see the family together at any other time. Bob, a constant party waiting to happen, turned 75 mid-week; his bride, Judy, a serial cruiser and serious fun-seeker, was the first one in the casino and the first one off the ship in every port.

And then there was Matt, their amazingly social son and my UNLV hero, who made me understand why you can’t judge a person by the hat on his head.

It was Stevie, a friend from cruises past who just so happened to be onboard with the Ciociola's once again. And Alberto, who we all agreed will one day make the world's best husband, and a pretty respectable son-in-law as well. We never, ever saw one of these guys without getting a hug and a smile.

It was Dana and Tom, a news guy from upstate New York who gave up his seat on the boat for old achy-kneed me. There was Michelle and her daughter Jessica who brought their own Diet Coke and shot hoops with the guys every morning. It was Harry, adorned in gold, his lovely wife Dee, a vision in Lily Pulitzer. It was Ryan, the gun-toting day care owner and James the corporate lawyer who drank himself into oblivion and was never seen again.

It was Tom and Patti from Wisconsin who we first chatted up on the elevator boarding the ship and subsequently ran into wherever we roamed.

And, most of all, it was Hans and Danny who matched us wit-for-wit, drink-for-drink, chicken wing-for-chicken wing. Who saw the humor in the stuck-in-the-waterslide story, who helped orchestrate my first-ever slot machine win and taught us the value of starting the day with a Long Island Iced Tea, or at the very least, a Bloody Mary. They shared our disdain for all things disdainable, our passion for cruising and our intrinsic interest in the people around us, for better or worse.

And while every picture tells a story, it’s never the whole story. It's merely the story of a week at sea. A week where we're all throwing caution to the wind. A week where we're all living in the moment. A week where we're all searching for the same things - joy, fun and our next good meal. It's a week when even the lightweights drink, the large don't count calories and the young show up in the morning with hickeys from girls whose names they'll never remember. (Ahem, you know who I'm talking about!) 

It's a week when couples are happy, friends are compatible and siblings don't fight. It's a week free of checkbooks and bosses and constant e-mailing. It's a week when being bald or gray, black or white, gay or straight makes no difference at all. It's a week when we can forget that we're overworked or underemployed. A week when no one cares if we went to an Ivy League college or a local trade school. If our kids are smart or our dogs are dumb. If our sporty cruise wear comes from Bergdorf's or Dress Barn.

Because, for one week we're not defined by our real lives. We're not divorced and widowed, damaged and weary, deflated and weak. For one week we're who we'd  love to be every day of our live-long lives. The happy-go-lucky, belly-laughing, over-indulging, social side of ourselves that we suppress way too often. 

For one week, nothing is more important than watching shimmering Rainbow Fish darting in and out of coral reefs, seeing sea turtles paddling their way across the crystal-clear turquoise waters, and watching the sky light up in a kaleidoscope of colors as the sun sinks over the distant horizon. For one week, nothing is more important than making new friends, trying new foods and sipping new cocktails.

And it isn't until the ship comes to port and we all disperse to our diverse and deviant lives that we're faced with the biggest conundrum of the cruise.

How do we even begin to do our stories justice?

So we pull out our photos and try to explain all the settings and scenarios to our friends and families. We try to recreate the feeling of freedom and the fall-on-the-floor laughter. We try to describe all the people we met and the personalities they portrayed. 

But we can't. Because, while every picture tells a story, the true essence of an experience can only be captured in the cameras of our souls.