stories from the mississippi

I've been waiting for this past week to come since last year. When I lived in Reno as a kid, my aunt, uncle, and two cousins lived there too. We were all inseparable. They were the younger siblings I never had. I adored them and spent every second I could with them. Then we moved to Ohio when I started middle school, and it broke my heart.

I've seen them since at family gatherings, and I've traveled to visit a few times, the last being a college spring break. That was ten years ago, and I've seen them for only 24 hours since. It has been killing me! My baby cousins have grown up since then. The youngest graduated from high school last month, and for her graduation present she wanted to travel east to see us.

It was so nice to be around people (other than my parents) who remember my Reno life. They remember my school, my house, church, my old friends, and so many little things I had forgotten. Street names and places were thrown out that I hadn't heard in nearly 20 years. My cousin is restoring a '58 VW Bug, and he loves to drive it up to a scenic outlook on a hill at the entrance of my old neighborhood. He showed me pictures of the downtown Reno view that I used to see out my bedroom window, and it destroyed me. It reminded me that those 7 years of my life were not, in fact, just in my head. I feel so far removed from it that I sometimes wonder if it was even real.

It's been the longest since I've seen my uncle. He's one of my favorite people on the planet, even though we tease each other mercilessly. He's hilarious and is always getting himself into a pickle, like the time last weekend a woman was yelling at him to move the car in the Antique Archeology parking lot all while his shorts split and he was trying to hide it from her while she let him have it. He's a former California firefighter/medic turned Walmart truck driver who often rocks a handlebar mustache. He's full of stories of fighting wildfires and saving lives from horrible crashes.

The night our house nearly burned down from a wildfire 18 years ago, he was with us all night comforting us, helping us evacuate, listening to the police scanner, and keeping tabs on the fire. We were talking about that fire the other day when he got a news alert that the hill behind my old house was on fire again. It was unnerving, like when you merely think about something and then see an ad for it on Facebook ten minutes later. As much as I miss the West Coast, I will take the threat of tornados over fire danger and earthquakes any day of the week. There is no terror like waking up in the middle of the night smelling smoke, or a thunderstorm that doesn't bring rain.

We spent Saturday on a Mississippi riverboat. Many years ago, we all went on a similar boat on Lake Tahoe (the Tahoe Queen has since caught on fire and sunk), and never in a million years did I think the experience would be repeated on the Mississippi River. It was absolutely delightful, minus the 100+ degree heat. The boat was lined with wooden rocking chairs and served iced tea and lemonade. I loved every single second of it and didn't want to get off.

The plan after the boat was to get lunch and take the family to Antique Archaeology, since they're fans of the show American Pickers. Ever since my parents moved here, I've been bound and determined to hunt down Mike Wolfe (from the show American Pickers, since half the people I talk to give me blank stares when I say his name). Last June I missed him filming the show by 24 hours and could not get over it. This year, we got off the boat and he was STANDING RIGHT THERE. I knew he was doing an event in town, but it was during our boat ride, so I assumed we would miss him. All I wanted was to see him in person, even from a long distance. Rather, I got to chat with him, side hug him, and take a picture. I blacked out the conversation because I was so frazzled I forgot how to speak. He said my name and I nearly lost consciousness.

A heat index of 110 and an hour and a half on a boat did not make for a flattering picture, but you will hear nary a complaint from me. I'm still in shock. He was an absolutely delightful being, just as I'd imagined.

The day before, we toured a John Deere factory. If that doesn't scream SUMMER VACATION, then I don't know what does. I'm ambivalent toward tractors, but the menfolk in the family love them some JD. I happily went along, because oddly enough it sounded a little interesting. I was not expecting the level of excitement I would feel when I saw the most massive combine of all time in the entry way. They let people climb inside, and Gracie thought it was the best thing that had ever happened. That girl LOVES tractors and has her entire life.

Unfortunately, the temperature was over 100, and the factory had no AC, which I suppose is to be expected. I know that's nothing to a lot of people, but I like to say I'm "heat-sensitive," because I truly do not handle that kind of heat well. No matter how much water I drink, I feel nauseated and completely drained of life. I was not made for extreme temperatures. They took us into the paint bay which had no air flow, was much hotter than the rest of the factory, and reeked of paint. It was cool watching giant combine parts dunked into massive vats of green paint, but I thought I was going to pass out and barf.

We went to another building that had a museum and lots of tractors and bulldozers for kids to play in. Gracie had the time of her life. She loved nothing more than trying to drive tractors and spend time with her big cousins. It was the sweetest thing ever. I remember my cousin losing his mind over tractors when he was Gracie's age, and here he was with his younger cousin watching her do the same. FULL CIRCLE. I love it.

My cousin Nick and I have shared a bond since the day he was born. I mean, I vividly remember sobbing on the way to school on his first birthday because I was upset he was growing up so fast. I have such good memories of playing with him when he was Gracie's age. He LOVED trains like no kid I've ever seen before. Thomas the Train was his absolute favorite, and that just so happens to be Gracie's favorite as well. They sat on the floor playing trains together, just like I did for umpteen hours with a toddler Nick. Full circle again! They had a bond just like Nick and I used to have. I'M NOT EMOTIONAL, YOU ARE.

My cousin Adrianna was a baby when we moved away. I had harbored fantasies of taking her out for lunch or shopping or things like that when I was old enough to drive. Of course that never got to happen, but this time I took her out to coffee and a few other outings. She took care of Gracie for me the entire time, always asking if she could do whatever needed to be done. Gracie didn't always tolerate it, but I LOVED having the help. I told her she has to move in with me. Lest you think she's an angel, she may or may not have gotten a video of me screaming at the neighbors setting off fireworks and then falling off the chair I was standing on, and then playing said video for the rest of the family.

The trip wasn't without its chaos, like the infamous night where I couldn't sleep because the neighbors were setting off fireworks for hours. I started to doze off when a relative was snoring so loud I could hear it through the walls even with my white noise app on full volume. I hadn't drowned out the snoring, but apparently I drowned out Gracie's screams from the other room. I knew something was wrong when the snoring next door abruptly stopped, so I jumped out of bed just for a cousin to burst into my room sobbing that something was wrong. I assumed the worst, just to discover Gracie had woken up crying, which the cousin heard in the monitor which rattled her so much she sobbed for half an hour, but everything was fine. That adrenaline rush kept me up for another hour. Another similar night kept me up till 4am. I was a walking zombie all week, but without time to rest and doing outdoor activities in 110 degree heat. I wouldn't trade it for anything, but I'm so happy to be back to my routine.

This is my family, minus my dad who was taking the picture and my cousin who was on a plane to Iowa. I'd like to point out that I'm the SHORTEST person in my family (aside from G, obviously). The shortest! You guys, I'm 5'7", possibly 5'8". I'm not a short person! I tower above every one of my friends and always have. My dad and cousin who aren't in the picture are 6'4 and 6'3. This is why I'm convinced Gracie will be 6 feet tall.

We adventured all over the river, went out to eat, baked, played cards late at night, watched old movies, and it was just the best. It felt like I had gone back in time 20 years, except now I'm an adult with a babe and can tease my uncle back tenfold. I'm so thankful for that time with them and that Gracie got to experience some of the cousin love I used to experience. Since James and I are both only children, she has no aunts, uncles, or cousins, so I'm eternally grateful I could share mine. I drove home thinking how weirdly displaced I feel. I said goodbye to my family who I used to live in the same town with, then said goodbye to my parents living in a place that's never been my home, and drove home to the state that's my home but no longer has my parents. It's SO WEIRD having roots all over the place but no clear definition of home or hometown.

For instance, when I lived in North Carolina and watched American Pickers religiously in college, NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS did I think I would one day actually meet him in Iowa, a state I remember thinking I would probably never see, with my family who I grew up with in Nevada. Life is weird and confusing.

After a long drive on the 4th of July, I'm home now nursing a summer cold, a billion mosquito bites, and I walked into furniture this morning right where I have a bite, so every time I scratch it makes me want to scream because there's an intense bruise forming, and basically WELCOME BACK TO REALITY, MICHELLE. So grateful for two weeks with my family doing fun summer things, so thankful to be back home with my NEW FRIDGE.

It's every bit as beautiful as I imagined it was, just like Mike Wolfe.


  1. So I've never heard of American Pickers or Mike Wolfe, but reading this post made me so happy! Your extended family sounds so cool, and I think it's really awesome that you got to spend this time with them. And it is weird having roots all over the place!!!! I've lived all over the U.S. (I'm not a military kid; God just moved us around for one reason or another) and it's kind of odd to have segments of my life in different places that some of my current friends know nothing about.

  2. I just told my grown cousin that has a child of her own now, that I remember when she was born & I thought she was my baby doll. It killed me to see her grow up too.
    I'm totally using the words "heat sensitive" from now on myself! I'm also "Cold sensitive" so I'm just screwed 11 out of 12 months.

  3. It sounds like it was a wonderful trip :) Time with family leaves me a mess of emotions... irritated, loved, blessed, tired, happy, overwhelmed. But I never regret it :)
    Enjoy that new fridge!!!

  4. My husband's cousin works on American Pickers as a story producer. I've always thought that was SO cool!

  5. I can really relate to having extended family that you're really really close to and love intensely but don't get to actually see in person for years at a time. And that whole not really getting to be from any one place thing or have any one 'hometown.' Angel, either.

    I love factories so much. My dad used to manage factories and was always taking us on tours and I have a soft spot for assembly lines. The Camry factory tour is one of my best childhood memories. Also being a farm family, a John Deere factory sounds amazing.

    And that riverboat is like heaven on earth.

  6. I love that you have such a great extended family that you really like, even if you don't live close to them. Treasure that!! :)

    Confession: I had no idea who Mike Wolfe was. Never seen the show, lol.


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