dear julian: on your third birthday.

my dearest, sweetest, big boy:

i will never forget the moment we first met.  both of us naked, crying.  strangers.  my body was your home, and as you were placed on my chest i immediately felt as if i'd been holding you all of my life.  but who was this little baby?  i had no idea.  what would you be like?  what would your strengths be?  what about your sense of humor, or your interests?  at three, i feel like i am finally getting a glimpse into the answers of those questions.  and it feels as if you've been like this all along.  

you are sweet and sensitive.  you notice others' feelings, especially in your family.  if i'm crying, you'll comfort me.  you've actually gotten out a tissue and wiped my tears away.  you've patted my leg and told me not to cry.  if your brother is crying you'll tell me what he needs -- 'i think he needs some milk!,' or, 'baby needs you, mommy!'  you can communicate with your friends and your brother when there is a disagreement.  'can i have a turn?'  you're always the first one to try and trade toys, or redirect to a new activity.  it's when i'm most proud of you.  at three you make conversation and ask questions.  you ask what the best part of my day was, or my favorite part of a special weekend.  you even ask your brother.  the other day as you climbed up on my lap as i peed, and you declared it the best part of your day, already, at 7:15 in the morning.  at three you've been sleeping in your own bed over a year now, and your baby monitor is no more.  if you need us in the night you run right into our bedroom and climb over daddy, right between us.  or, sometimes, prefer to cuddle with just him, right at the edge of the bed.  at three, you're potty trained, and accidents are surprisingly few and far between.  you have all your teeth, sleep through the night every night, and eat a shocking variety of foods (likes include smoked salmon, kale, scrambled eggs with spinach, salt & vinegar potato chips -- dislikes include red meat, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese).  at three you know your limitations, and tell us what you aren't ready for.  as your birthday approached, you told me you'd visit the mummy exhibit at your favorite 'dino museum' when you were three.  we've visited a preschool and think we've found a winner for this fall, and you're eager.  you're ready.  at three, we are supposed to have you off your schnuller, but we've put it off one more month, and you know it's coming.  you'll be ok, i just know it.  at three you are shockingly intelligent, methodical, and deliberate.  everything you do is for a reason.  

the biggest change this year has been your words.  you're talking, about everything, constantly, way above your age range.  we said goodbye to your beloved speech therapist three days before your third birthday, and she told me you were speaking at the level of a 5-year-old.  it's a dream come true.  you don't remember nearly any of the signs that were second nature to you, but you're learning once again as we teach your brother.  and not only are you talking now, but over the last week you've been singing.  we got an amazon echo for the kitchen and you know how to ask alexa to put on your favorite songs (she rarely listens to you, though, which makes you feel self conscious and ask me to do it), and sing along.  at three your favorite songs are yellow submarine, octopus's garden, and strawberry fields forever, all by the beatles.  you also enjoy the songs of daniel tiger and dinosaur train. 

DINOSAURS. oh my gosh, the dinosaurs.  you've said goodbye to your obsession with trucks (thank you!) and hello to the world of prehistoric creatures.  and in true julian fashion, you don't just know about stegosaurus and triceratops (though of course you know about those), you can tell us all about pachycephalosaurus and parasaurolophus, the difference between protoceratops and pentaceratops, the different eras they lived in, and which were carnivores or herbivores.  i'm constantly impressed by you.  at three your favorite show is dinosaur train, but you also love to watch episodes of planet earth.  sometimes there are scary parts, i think -- when the lions are circling the elephants at night in the savannah, and you ask me to skip this part.  you don't like when people are hurt or upset or crying.  it doesn't interest you and you want nothing to do with it.  

i surprisingly said to your dad the other day that i really enjoy spending time with you.  not just in a mommy-and-kid kind of way.  i really, genuinely enjoy getting to hang out and play.  you ask thoughtful questions, you listen.  you're one of my favorite people in the world to spend time with, whether we are reading a story, watching a show, or wandering around the zoo or dinosaur museum.  you're thoughtful and poignant sometimes, making observations about things i've stopped noticing long ago.  you make me think, you make me slow down and feel.  you make me a better person.  

i told you the other day that you made me a mommy, and you gave me your shy smile and hugged me.  you're making this life better, every day.  

oh julian, i can't wait to see what this next year brings.  your third year was our best yet, by far.  and i have a feeling this next one will be just as good.

i love you the most, you silly goof.

your mama. 

islay, scotland: a travelogue.

ahhhhh, islay.  if there was one very faraway place in europe i would pick up and move all my stuff to, islay would be the place.  we were there a little less than a month before the election, and i kept saying to philip [half-jokingly] that if trump wins, islay is where we should re-settle the family.  it had everything: mountains, beach, miles of green grass, the friendliest people we encountered anywhere in europe, all of the best single malt scotch you could hope for, and almost no tourists.

seriously. hardly a tourist anywhere. we saw the same dozen [or maybe less] tourists at our hotel, on the ferry, and at the various distilleries.  i'm not sure if it was the season or just that islay isn't exactly the easiest place to get to, but that was ok with us.  we were richly rewarded with scotch and an island all to ourselves when we finally got there.  

so, i should mention.  the reason we went to islay at all is because islay is home to some of the world's finest single malt scotch distilleries.  all of philip's favorite scotches come from islay.  when we decided to go to scotland, it seemed only natural that we would go to islay.  it's a little hard to get to -- it's a 21/2 hour drive from glasgow to the ferry, and then the ferry is another two hours.  islay has a population of less than 4000 on the entire island.  i'm actually pretty sure we saw more cows and sheep there than people.  the population density is something like 0.06%.  really.   but those few people there produce the world's best scotches.  on that 240 square miles, you can visit laphroaig, lagavulin, kilchoman, bruichladdich, caol ila, bowmore, bunnahabhain, and ardbeg

we flew into glasgow from london and rented a car at the airport.  you know that scene in the secret life of walter mitty where he's renting a car in iceland and the clerk asks him which one he wants, red or blue? it was kind of like that.  from glasgow, it was a 2 1/2 hour drive to kennacraig, where the ferry to islay departs from.  it was one of the most beautiful drives i've ever taken, totally on par with our drive along the amalfi coast.  we missed our original flight out of london, so unfortunately we had to drive straight through to kennacraig without stopping.  it would have been so easy to turn that 2 1/2 hour drive into 4-5 hours with stops along the way to walk, take in the scenery, and enjoy some lunch.  we took the ferry on caledonian macbrayne to port ellen, which was a little over two hours.  our hotel was in port ellen, and most of the distilleries we wished to visit were very near there.  of course this is all relative, as the island is very small and easily drivable [as long as someone in your party isn't sampling scotch!].  we stayed at the most adorable little hotel [one of my favorite places we stayed on our trip!], the islay hotel.  one of the reasons we [actually, philip] picked the hotel because of it's extensive whiskey bar.  they serve scotch from every distillery on the island, including lots of rare and exclusive bottles.  it also had a fantastic restaurant where we had an incredible seafood dinner before turning in for the evening.  we wanted to be well rested for all that whiskey drinking the next day.

the next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel before heading out to our first distillery.  two that philip was most interested in, lagavulin and laphroaig, were very near our hotel.  we opted for those first, since we also knew they would take the most time.  

first stop was lagavulin, where we timed our arrival just right to take part in a guided tasting.  this year is lagavulin's 200th anniversary year, and they had quite a few special things they were offering visitors.  the guided tasting was the best tasting we had, hands down.  we were able to sample five different whiskeys, most of which were exclusive to the distillery -- so you could only taste them if you went all the way to islay [you bet your ass we took some of that home].  our guide, sarah, encouraged us to try each dram alone and then with something to compliment the flavor profile -- vanilla sugar, peat, lapsong souchong tea, candied figs.  it made a huge difference in the flavors of each dram, as even an unexperienced whiskey taster such as myself could notice.

after we packed up our souvenir bottles, we headed down the road just a little to laphroaig.  philip [and me too, honestly] was most looking forward to laphroaig was finding his plot of land.  through the friends of laphroaig program, when you purchase a bottle of laphroaig, you can register on their website for certain perks -- including a square foot of land on their distillery property.  you're then able to go visit the plot, collect your 'rent' [a dram of laphroaig], hike to your plot and plant your flag.  it was, by far, the best experience of all of the distilleries.  they encouraged us to hike around their property, and even gave wellies to those who didn't have them [cough philip cough].  they encourage not just for you to come and visit your plot, but a sense of community; they have hosted a wedding on the plots and had ashes scattered.  we spent a good chunk of time finding the plot first, and wandering around the hills and taking in the views, before we went into the tasting room so philip could have a few samples.  

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at this point it was lunch, so we opted to drive about five minutes back to our hotel and have some fish and chips.  our hotel was the only place we at on the island and i do not regret it a bit.  everything was wonderful, from softshell crab to fish and chips to desserts and soups.  it was just perfect.

after lunch, we headed towards port charlotte, where bruichladdich is.  it was about a 45 minute drive, diagonally across the island and then along the water.  the views were just breathtaking.  bruichladdich definitely had the most distinct look of all the distilleries we visited.  almost all of the buildings on islay are whitewashed, or they are made of stone.  all of the buildings at the different distilleries looked identical, which was pretty cool.  but at bruichladdich, they had the trim and windows on their buildings painted their trademark teal blue, which made everything pop vividly.  the tasting wasn't anything special, though they did have a selection of drams only available at the distillery.  and since they are located right on the water, we were able to take a nice walk along the beach after we finished our samples.  bruichladdich also sells a gin distilled on islay, which we bought for me to have when we got back home. 

from bruichladdich, we drove inland on a tiny one-lane road, over rolling hills and so many sheep i couldn't count to kilchoman, our last stop of the day.  kilchoman had a private back room for their tasting, and we were the only ones there for the daily tasting so it was a pretty small group.  philip sampled a few and then we wandered around their shop and hung around in their cafe for a while.  kilchoman is one of the few breweries that serves food and drinks [little sandwiches and teas, mostly], in case you need something in your belly besides scotch.

most distillers wrap up for the day around 5, so we called it quits after kilchoman and slowly made our way back to the inn.  we made a few stops for the views and photo ops, and about two hours later we were enjoying another fantastic meal at our hotel restaurant, sipping a few more local scotches.  the bar at the hotel has live music on saturday nights, but we decided we'd get up early the next day before the ferry.

there were a few different ferry options to get back to kennacraig.  we decided to drive across the island to take the ferry from port askaig since we had the whole day before our flight to dublin left glasgow.  we could have left from port ellen, where we were staying, but there was one last distillery we thought we might be able to stop by before we got on the ferry.  it was another 45 minute drive to port askaig, but we had breakfast delivered up to our room while we packed up.   

we headed on the winding, one-lane-both-direction roads, enjoying our last views of islay before our ferry.  we had a little less than an hour to kill when we arrived at port askaig, and thought we could walk around there for a bit.  wrong.  there was literally nothing there but a dock where the ferry would arrive, and it hadn't arrived yet.  luckily, bunnahaibhain wasn't too far behind us, so we backtracked about ten minutes and drove over the hills.  it was definitely the most difficult distillery to get to.  we drove about twenty minutes on a windy, bumpy, not-at-all paved road, convinced we'd past it somehow or taken a wrong turn [as if there was actually a turn anywhere].  but since there was nowhere safe to turn around, we just kept going.  and finally, we arrived at bunnahaibhain.  it looked totally deserted, and we wondered if it was actually closed for a minute since it was sunday.  we parked the car and wandered onto the grounds.  

of all the distilleries we visited, bunnahaibhain was the most awe-inspiring.  located on a cliff perched over the oceanside, barrels upon barrels stacked up everywhere around us, aging the barrels with the salty sea breeze.  we wandered in and out of old out buildings, grain houses, and warehouses until we found stairs leading up to a tiny door a story up, with the word office etched onto the glass.  figuring we had nothing to lose, we climbed the stairs up to the office and found a little office and shop [it was all one room] inside, with a kind man willing to talk about the distillery and pour us a few samples.  it was unbelievable.  though hard to get to, i can't recommend bunnahaibhain enough if only for the views and experience alone.  we picked up a few bottles that you can only get at the distillery [and, really, who goes there?!] and got back into our rental to head to the ferry.  

we took the caledonian macbrayne ferry back to kennacraig, and once again made the two-and-a-half hour drive back to glasgow.  this time we were able to drive a little slower and make a few stops along the way.  one memorable pitstop was in inveraray, where we saw the gorgeous inveraray lake and took lunch at brambles bistro.  if we only had more time we would have stopped at the inveraray castle -- i only saw it from the outside but it was absolutely jaw-dropping.  maybe next time?

and oh, islay, there will definitely be a next time.  definitely. 

dear finley: one year.

my sweet, sweet baby.

 

what a year it's been.  i'm not quite sure how you're already a year old.  you still seem to baby like to me.  not that you aren't doing so much, or so well, and not that you haven't grown to be '... SO BIG!' [your favorite game to play at the moment], but that it's just gone by so fast.  when you first turned one month old, i remember thinking, 'how has it only been one month?!'  hours seemed like days and some days seemed weeks long.  when you wake up every 2 hours to feed a baby, there is no day and night, and days bleed into one another with no breaks.  but somewhere along the way, we found our groove.  we figured it out, you and i, and your daddy and julian.  and it worked so well that we lost track of time.  and here we are.  one year later.

finley, i remember how scared i was when i was pregnant with you.  no one gets two good babies, people told me.  and so i prepared myself, mentally.  you'd be the baby that never slept.  or never ate.  you'd be the baby with colic that cried all the time.  or never let me put him down.   when you were first born and vanessa pulled you out of the water and handed you to me, i clutched you and cried.  i was grateful to hear you cry and so unbelievably thankful for the pain of labor to be over.  but those first moments, you were a stranger to me.  you didn't seem particularly happy to be out of your warm and safe space inside my belly.  no, you were pretty grouchy.  in those first few hours you and i spent together at the birth center, i thought it would be true, that you would not be what people call a 'good' baby.  we thought we'd name you oskar.  oskar the grouch.  but then, we put you in the car and brought you home.  we wrapped you in blankets upon blankets -- i'll never forget sarah walking us out to the car and saying make sure you keep him warm! hats and blankets! -- and made you sleep in hats.  and before long, your noises grew familiar.  your face was a face that i knew.  and you were not grouchy, or upset.  you weren't cranky or fussy.  you were just finley.

and now i know you, fin.  now i know how happy you are.  you are the happiest baby i've ever met.  sure, you'd prefer to be held most of the time.  and when i look back, no, you never slept through the night quite like your brother did.  but it never seemed all that bad, or all that hard, even.  it just seemed like i was the luckiest mama in the world to get to spend all that time attached to you.  preparing dinner with one hand.  sleeping with you on one breast.  it has been my greatest privilege, and i mean that, i honestly do.  when you first came home, julian told us your favorite color was yellow.  sure, we nodded, and smiled to each other at how silly he was being.  but yellow is just like you.  sunny and happy, bright and cheerful.  your smile is infectious.  your laugh is contagious.  you have a temper sometimes -- i think you're a little hothead, like i am --  and you're much more mischievous than your brother is or ever was.  but i have to admit that i love that about you.  

finley, at twelve months old you are full of life.  you walk with any toys you can push around.  you call out mamamamama and dadadadada and love to make silly sounds.  you kiss with an open mouth on command and whenever you want to.  you love your brother something fierce, and i can already see how much you look up to him.  you sign more and all done and milk almost all of the time.  you nap well and you sleep well at night.  you are silly and have the best sense of humor already.  you love to play peekaboo and throw your hands up into the air when we ask, 'how big is finley?'  you climb up and down stairs, you love to sit in your own chair but more often than not you just use it as a ladder to climb up on to your favorite place, the couch.  you love balloons and pom poms and christmas tree ornaments.  you love, love, love elmo and the chipmunks christmas carols, your favorite one being rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.  your favorite food in the world is vanilla yogurt but you love scrambled eggs, turkey and hummus, toast, and rice.  you often times eat more than julian does.  

i've said it before and i'll say it a hundred more times.  you are the best thing that happened to us.  you are the missing piece i never knew we always needed.  you made us a family, and you made my mama heart explode with more love than i knew it could hold. 

it's so bittersweet, this first birthday.  i'm not certain what the future holds for our family, and if there will be any more babies or not.  it's very, very possible you are the last one.  forever the baby, no matter your age.  i'm mourning the loss of these baby days, but at the same time i see what julian is like at two and a half and i can't wait to see you like that.  this next year will be so big for you.  i can't wait to see what you are like as you grow.  it's the best -- and hardest -- part of being a mama.

thank you, fin.  thank you for joining our family and thank you for showing me how much more love i had to give.  thank you for not making me scared of more babies, more messiness, more of everything.  you are my special, sweet baby.  you always will be.

i love you the most, little finley.

your mama.