Nitro’s Check Mark

I took my teenage niece, nephew, and their friend to Six Flags Great Adventure yesterday (August 10, 2018). My husband and I have given Niece and Nephew season passes to Six Flags Great Adventure for Christmas every year since 2015.

What I love most about our gift is that I also get a season pass, which allows me to spend time with them at the park several times a year. Each visit is special to me because it’s our thing, and it’s a great way to help provide a break for my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. If I had a nickel for how many times we laughed together or for each memory we made or silly story we told, I’d be a millionaire by now.

Nephew knows more about Six Flags rides and parks than anyone I’ve ever met. He can tell you when a ride made its park debut, who built it, who designed it, and what park received the ride it might have replaced. He understands the physics and design elements that goes into building a ride and if you ask him what park in the United States had the first looping roller coaster, he will know the answer.

When it comes to actually going on the rides, Niece is fearless and she will go on anything.  Meanwhile, Nephew and I have a similar sense of moderate adventure and we tend to stick to the middle-of-the-road rides and coasters, then when we are ready, we’ll attempt riding a more extreme one.

Our favorite ride is Skull Mountain, which is a fun, little inside coaster that operates in the dark. Two summers ago, Nephew and I set a personal record for going on Skull Mountain 22 times in a row, which took a little over two hours. We only stayed on the ride when the ride queue was empty five times; the rest of the time we got out and walked around. It probably wasn’t my best decision, in hindsight, since I flew to Dublin the following day with a splitting headache.

Our last ride conquests were Superman: Ultimate Flight and Green Lantern at the end of last summer. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Superman experience, considering riders are face down to simulate Superman’s flight. We conquered Bizarro in April of 2017. Man, that one is fast! It’s like the Batman coaster after it had three energy drinks and a shot of super-charged espresso. Batman: The Ride has always been one of my favorites, and we conquered that one together in 2015 at Six Flags Great Adventure’s Holidays in the Park.

The coasters Nephew and I haven’t found the courage to ride yet are notoriously extreme, and we weren’t sure which coaster we’d be brave enough to conquer this year.

Enter Nitro.

Nitro, from the Six Flags Great Adventure website

When Nitro opened in 2001, it was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in New Jersey (Kingda Ka stole those honors from Nitro a few years later). While Nitro does not have any inversions, it is 230 feet high at its peak (which takes almost 60 seconds to climb) and reaches speeds up to 80 miles per hour in its two minute, twenty second mile-long course.

I went on Nitro once while chaperoning a school trip in 2005, thinking it would be like either Rolling Thunder and Scream Machine, two classic, now long-gone, coasters I loved.

I was completely wrong.

Nitro nearly killed me.

Well, maybe not killed, but the experience scared me tremendously.

I ended up uncontrollably shaking and trembling when I walked off the ride, my legs like jelly and my arm muscles sore for several days later due to how much I strained them as I held onto the restraint as tight as I could.

I vowed I was forever done with the infernal contraption known as Nitro.

I shared my Nitro story with Nephew on several occasions, including yesterday when we safely sat and waited for Niece and Friend to return from Friend’s first time riding the steel beast.

Nephew is older now, and I could see the curiosity twinkling in his eye as he told me what he knew about Nitro while he watched a car roaring along its track. “It was designed by B and M,” he said, “and they have a great safety record.”

There was no doubt about it. He was ready to take the Nitro leap and I wasn’t about to let my fear hold him back.

Niece and Friend returned rather quickly since the wait time was a few minutes at best, and Friend absolutely loved the Nitro experience.

Nephew said that if Friend could do it, he could too.

All three looked at me with pleading eyes but I stubbornly shook my head. “You guys have a great time!” I said as I bid them farewell, then I walked over to where people on the ground could see Nitro’s ride cars leave the loading area. Nephew was safely seated between Niece and Friend as their car passed by, their arms flailing in enthusiastic waves.

“Bye!” they yelled in unison.

They returned 140 seconds later with Nephew wearing the widest smile I’ve ever seen on his face. He gave me a thumbs up from up on high as he jubilantly shrieked, “It was awesome!”

Dammit.

I knew what I had to do.

A minute later, they surrounded me as they jumped around in sheer excitement and joy. A chorus of “please?”s rose up.  Nephew looked me right in my eyes and said, “You can do it. I did it, and so can you.”

I remembered a story told by a colleague who was in a similar situation. Her grandson wanted her to go on a thrill ride with him, and her outlook was, “I can do anything for two minutes.”

Realizing that I could too, I sighed then nodded my head as I said, “Okay.”

A whoop emanated from all three as Niece took my hand to lead me to certain death.

“You’re lucky I love you,” I grumbled as we walked through the air gate to the seats in Row 4.

My pulse raced as I sat down between Niece and Nephew, with Friend to Nephew’s left. The yellow restraints locked and were subsequently checked by the ride attendants. It’s a good thing mine was secure because at the last second, I cried, “I don’t want to do this!” and I honestly would have ran if I could.

However, it was zero hour and flight was not an option.

After the “visual scan” and “all clear” over the loudspeaker by what I was sure was the Grim Reaper disguised as Nitro’s head supervisor, our car was set free.

Nitro, from the Six Flags Great Adventure website

I closed my eyes and leaned my head as far back into my seat as possible. With each upward click, I squeezed Niece’s hand a little tighter. She, along with Nephew and Friend, found my reaction highly amusing. I think they were all laughing, but I can’t exactly remember because I was concentrating so hard on praying for redemption.

“Here we go, Aunt Jill!” Niece shouted as we reached Nitro’s summit.

This is it.

I. Am. Going. To. Die.

Within seconds, we were traveling down the 215-feet drop at the advertised eighty miles-per-hour.  I’m pretty sure my heart rate matched the number of expletives I let fly.

“I’m going to die! My eyes are closed! My eyes are open! No, they’re not! I’m going to die!”

Towards the end of the journey to my undeniable demise, Niece yelled, “Bunny hops!!”

I opened my eyes to see the blue and yellow hilly path we were on as we smoothly rode over each bump. It was surprisingly much smoother than the Runaway Mine Train bunny hops at the end of its path, that was for sure.

“Hold on!”

The car suddenly came to a halting stop.

And I was alive.

Sure, my legs were once again like jelly as we walked off the ride, and I felt a surge of electricity pulsing through my entire body.

But it was a good energy, and I did not die.

The sleek, wicked-fast roller coaster was one of the smoothest rides I’ve ever experienced, and the sensation of weightlessness was exhilarating.

I looked at Nephew, who threw his arms around me and exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you!” Niece and friend hugged me too. “You did it, Aunt Jill!”

Somewhere along the ride route, a remote camera snaps a photograph which is then displayed for about a minute or so on the monitors at the Nitro photo kiosk near the ride’s exit. The picture of our row featured three gleeful faces with arms up in the air and one red face screaming for mercy as she gripped onto the restraint for dear life.

We didn’t buy the photograph, but I’ll be able to picture it perfectly in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life.

The unspoken question hovered in the air around us as we regrouped outside the ride.

It was answered by all four of us walking together once again through Nitro’s entrance.

Three minutes later, a photograph with four delighted smiles in our row flashed upon the photo kiosk’s screen.

2018 Roller Coaster: Nitro. Check mark achieved.

 

Nitro’s Check Mark“: Copyright 2018 – Jill Ocone. This post originally appeared on both the Soulseaker blog (www.soulseaker.com) and the personal blog of Jill Ocone (www.jillocone.com) on August 11, 2018. Views and opinions contained in this post are solely those of the author, who was not compensated in any way by any entity, including Six Flags Great Adventure, the Six Flags corporation, or their affiliates. All rights reserved.

Radio Days: American Top 40

Radio music provided the soundtrack to my life as a youngster. Remember those long-distance dedications and waiting to hear what song would be number one for the week? Well, a local radio station plays original broadcasts of American Top 40 with Casey Kasem countdowns every Saturday morning, and listening to it has become one of my favorite parts of the week.

This week’s countdown from March 26, 1983 is a literal time machine, and I’m allowing myself to travel back as I listen to Casey Kasem’s quintessential voice and the top hits from 35 years ago on this chillingly sunny March morning…

I was twelve years old and in sixth grade, and man, was life simple back then. The only stresses were math homework and figuring out what route to take as I aimlessly wrote my bicycle around my neighborhood. Saturday morning cartoons and Battle of the Network Stars were still the things to watch, and the patchouli-reeking maze of stores called Peddler’s Village over in Wall Township was still the place to wander on a rainy weekend day to buy stickers, feather clips, and pencils with fuzzy toppers.

Whatever happened to Christopher Cross and Joe Jackson? In retrospect, I realize I like both of them and just added a few songs by each to my playlist for the upcoming week.

Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Rabbit and Crystal Gayle, and a dash of Anne Murray and Barry Manilow thrown in here and there…these artists were on constant rotation in our olive-green shagged-carpet family room that hid many a Star Wars figure’s small blaster within its threads…never thought those soft voices could ever be a trigger, but I digress….

Are the songs Little Red Corvette, Down Under, Allentown, and Stray Cat Strut really this old? Sidebar: I distinctly remember receiving Down Under as a 45 record for my birthday in February 1982. In fact, I think I still have it somewhere in my John Travolta record case that is buried deep in my attic.

Der Komissar! I’m creeping around dancing to this one like a secret agent. Not sure what that means, but that’s what I’m doing…don’t turn around…Der Komissar’s in town!

We didn’t have MTV yet in my house in 1983, but NBC aired a two-hour long show called Friday Night Videos. Knight Rider and Friday Night Videos were the first two shows we taped on our brand-new VCR, and I’d watch those videos over and over. I always believed the story about the video for Michael Jackson’s Beat it casting real gang members, but my father tried his best to set my warped thinking straight. “Look at how they dance. Gang members wouldn’t be able to dance like that,” he said, or something along those lines. Guess what? I just looked it up and apparently, I WAS RIGHT!!!! They WERE gang members! I also wanted to go to that diner in the video because, for some reason, I thought the food would be really good.

The zombies in the video for Jeopardy by The Greg Kihn Band freaked me out. I can picture them in my mind as clearly as if I saw them yesterday.

And speaking of my dearly departed father, he loved the song Come On Eileen, but in true dad fashion, he did not have a clue about what the lyrics really were (you in that dress, my thoughts I confess verge on dirty). I would cringe every time he’d sing the main chorus of Come On Eileen and the ‘to ra loo ra too ra loo rye eye’ part to a young girl named Eileen in Sunday church. I fear thinking about the possibility of ramifications gone viral if he did such a thing in 2018.

A rush of images from walking home from middle school flooded my brain when One on One by Hall and Oates began to play. The mood quickly switched to wanting to victoriously punch my fist in the air to the beat of Separate Ways by Journey, and before I knew it, I’m back in my friend Susan’s closet eating Smurfberry Crunch listening to Mr. Roboto by Styx. Ironically, I live on her street now, but she moved away a long time ago.

Yes! Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran! I still write this down on any and all school dance/prom song request lists that appear in my classroom, but for some reason, it’s never played.

The number two song is Do You Really Want to Hurt Me. Boy George’s voice is simply entrancing, and Culture Club is scheduled to perform this summer at a local outdoor concert venue. I really wish I could go but I’m going to be in Dublin.

And the number one song for the week is….drum roll please….

Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. As soon as the opening note drops, the highlight reel from one of my best moments as a teacher begins to play in my mind’s theater. How is it possible that the secret closing number during the December 2007 fund raiser happened more than ten years ago? The quote “In life, there is no five-minute intermission” was born that evening by a young man named Matt, and it’s morphed into one of my mantras for life. Special times and special memories with special people who walked through my journey for sure, and the value of this memory is worth millions.

It often blows my mind that while I might have trouble remembering what I did yesterday, I can recall, no problem, the words to many of these 35-year-old songs. This trip down memory lane today was a good one, and today’s soundtrack surely helped form the person I am today.

Here’s the full list of American Top 40 Hits from March 26, 1983 as per Casey Kasem’s countdown.

40: So Close – Diana Ross

39: I Don’t Care Anymore – Phil Collins

38: Winds of Change – Jefferson Starship

37: I Like It – Debarge

36: My Kind of Lady – Supertramp

35: I Won’t Hold You Back – Toto

34: Even Now – Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

33: Dreaming is Easy – Steel Breeze

32: Just You and I – Eddie Rabbit and Crystal Gayle

31: She Blinded Me With Science – Thomas Dolby

30: Lies – Thompson Twins

29: Make Love Stay – Dan Folgelberg

28: Change of Heart – Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

27: Little Red Corvette – Prince

26: Allentown – Billy Joel

25: Poison Arrow – ABC

24: Down Under – Men at Work

23: Baby Come to Me – Patti Austin and James Ingram

22: Breaking Us In Two – Joe Jackson

21: Stray Cat Strut – The Stray Cats

20: Little Too Late – Pat Benetar

19: All Right – Christopher Cross

18: I’ve Got a Rock and Roll Heart – Eric Clapton

17: Fall In Love With Me – Earth, Wind, and Fire

16: Der Kommisar – After the Fire

15: Beat It – Michael Jackson

14: Jeopardy – The Greg Kihn Band

13: I Know What’s Going On – Frida

12: Shame on the Moon – Bob Segar and The Silver Bullet Band

11: Come on, Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners

10: Twilight Zone – Golden Earring

9: One on One – Hall and Oates

8: Separate Ways – Journey

7: Mr. Roboto – Styx

6: We’ve Got Tonight – Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton

5: Back on the Chain Gang – The Pretenders

4: You Are – Lionel Richie

3: Hungry Like the Wolf – Duran Duran

2: Do You Really Want to Hurt Me – Culture Club

1: Billie Jean – Michael Jackson

Let’s LIVE This August!

Since I’m feeling almost exactly the same way today, I decided to reblog my post from the beginning of August 2016 with some minor updates…read on:

August is like the Sunday of Summer.

It sure is.

Don’t get me wrong…I still love every summer day. I just want to hold onto Summer so much. It’s my season, when I am my best self.

June is a new beginning, a giant sigh of relief. It’s full of opportunity and wonder, like January 1 kicks off every year. Anything is possible. It’s refreshing and reassuring. It’s also deceiving, leading us on to believe that there’s plenty of time to get our summer “to do” and “to enjoy” lists completed.

Then comes July, which is like my favorite pillow. I can hug it a thousand times, or play with it over and over, and it never loses its shape. It’s there when I wake, and when I say goodnight to the day. I can sleep soundly with that comforting pillow, free from worries and nightmares. It reassures me that tomorrow is another day when I can still start fresh, no need to really be concerned about the passing days…

As July wanes into August, things change again, ever so subtly. Each day is now filled with a little more urgency. Sunsets get earlier as the sun’s early evening slant changes its angle and becomes less intense day by day. Many of the bright summer flowers have lost their blooms, and nights become slightly cooler by the week. I look back at June and July, and wonder where the hell those days went. I then look ahead at what’s still on my summer goal lists, removing a few because there’s no longer enough time to accomplish everything I had hoped to do.

The lone cricket’s serenade that woke me early this morning affirmed that yes, it is indeed August already.

So, what do we do now?

Let’s live in the present and forget our lists.

Let’s turn off our notifications and stop being a slave to technology.

Let’s hold onto each moment, to each day, to each experience.

Let’s notice the breeze blowing through our hair and feel the rain on our skin.

Let’s put our feet in the salt water and find eternity in the waves.

Let’s savor the ice cream cone, the watermelon, the corn on the cob, the peaches and plums.

Let’s laugh and sing with family and friends.

Let’s be grateful for all that we have, for all that we are, for all that we do, and for all in our lives.

Let’s face each day without worry, without fear, and without strings attached.

Let’s soak up every single second of August without leaving any wasted time behind.

Let’s live.

Let’s live this August.

 

Growing Pains

Last week, I watched Inside Out for probably the tenth time. I’ll be honest and admit that I am 46 years old, yet I tear up at a few of the scenes in the film. Spoiler alert here…if you plan on seeing the movie someday and don’t want to know anything about the plot, I’d suggest you stop reading here and move along…

OK, since you’re still reading, I’ve either peaked your interest, you’ve already seen the movie, or you didn’t pay attention…if that’s the case, SNAP OUT OF IT BEFORE I RUIN THE FILM FOR YOU! 😊

Anyway, especially at the end of Inside Out, when Joy realizes she needs Sadness…man, I’m a blubbering idiot watching Riley cry because she’s been trying to put a positive face on for her parents but is really sad about moving. It’s in that moment that Joy realizes that her favorite core memory from Riley’s life is also Sadness’ but for different reasons. Joy and Sadness need each other to work, as do Anger, Disgust, and Fear.

There’s another part in Inside Out that absolutely kills me. It’s when Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from her childhood, and Joy are trying to escape the “memory” dump to get back to Sadness and the control center. They sing the ‘Bing Bong’ song to power his rocket:

Who’s your friend who likes to play?

Bing Bong, Bing Bong

His rocket makes you yell “Hooray!”

Bing Bong, Bing Bong

Who’s the best in every way, and wants to sing this song to say

Bing Bong, Bing Bong!

Bing Bong realizes they are too heavy to make it to the top of the cavern, and on the last attempt, he jumps off and Joy soars forward in the rocket. Joy looks back as she clears the dump, and Bing Bong waves as he slowly disappears, which symbolizes Riley maturing to a point where she’ll forget her childhood imaginary friend.

Cue the crying. Holy crap, I’m a mess.

I remember that time in my life, teetering between childhood and young personhood but not quite ready to leap forward, with one particular memory crystal clear in my mind’s eye. I was swinging on the swing set in my back yard, somewhere around 9 or 10 years old, and I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore but I didn’t want to grow up just yet. I cried so hard in that moment, and even though it was so long ago, it feels like it was yesterday.

Without children of my own, it’s harder for me to relate to such a lesson as a parent. I imagine the parents reading this can recall not only a similar moment in their own lives when they were faced with having to forge ahead into young personhood from childhood, but the moments when their children made that leap as well.

I did, however, experience a small episode of a disappearing Bing Bong last week. While at the boardwalk with my two nephews, the six-year-old H wanted to go on the ride with the boats. As he walked up to hand his ticket card, the ride attendant pointed at the sign indicating the maximum height of riders, and H was a smidge too tall to go on the ride. This was the first time he was too big for any of the rides. He looked at me with a quivering lip and tear-filled eyes, then ran over to me and hugged me tight as he let those tears out. And I let him cry it out while I held him tight, crying inside myself but trying to keep a strong exterior so that I didn’t further upset him or his brother. Within a minute, he regrouped and we moved on to ride the balloon Ferris wheel ride, where all three of us were the acceptable height.

This two-minute long experience made me realize that it’s got to be so much harder for parents watching their own children cross that threshold from childhood to young personhood. My sympathies are truly with you.

Watching Bing Bong dissolve a day later brought that look of sadness on H’s face flooding back to memory. I cried a little harder at this part in the movie this time because I thought of H and how his own personal Bing Bong was a tad less clear than it had been earlier in the month.

That’s the sucky part about maturing and growing up. Life has its stages and it’s all part of our plan, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. H is growing up, as we all do, and it’s not easy. What I can do for H is to be there ready with hugs and understanding whenever he needs me. That goes for all of my nieces and nephews.

I get it.

Yesterday, I took my very own pinwheel out of my shed and let it blow in the breeze. Then I bounced my purple ball on the sidewalk a few times. I blew some bubbles into the air and spun around. I hugged my Mickey Mouse, Pusheen cat, Boba Fett, dinosaur, and tiger stuffed toys, then stacked a few of my Tsum Tsum figures in new formations.

Earlier today, I received a text from my sister-in-law with a picture of a rare, new Tsum Tsum figure the boys got in a blind bag. They were both excited to show it to me.

And I was even more excited to know they finally got their three peas in a pod.

My own, personal Bing Bong is as clear and as bright and as alive as he ever was.

Saying YES to LIFE this Summer

Summer 2017, Day 25: July 15

It’s summertime, and the living is fine, for sure. Morning walks along the boardwalk and the beach, sitting in the shade and writing, watching the hundreds of birds at the feeders, enjoying an ice cream cone or a treat from the ice cream man, lunches and dinners with friends, picking green beans from the garden, wandering downtown, fishing with my husband, laughing with my nieces and nephews…life has been simply beautiful. It helps that I’m feeling extraordinarily better than last year at this time. I am once again an active participant in life with an awareness of my limits. I’m doing my best to savor each of my experiences and celebrate the ordinary moments in my days. Feeling better physically has led to a more positive mental and emotional outlook as well, and I can’t remember a time when I ever felt this content.

I said yes to an opportunity on a Facebook status months ago, and it turned out to be a fantastic time with friends and classmates as we saw the Violent Femmes in Asbury Park. Random, spontaneous fun for sure as the gents of the Femmes rocked the house. What a great time with even greater people!

But isn’t that the point of life? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to enjoy every moment of our time here on Earth?

Yes. Definitely YES. And I will be saying YES to life from this point on.

In other news, my novel is taking shape. I can see the storyline now, and what helped me get to this point was creating two large plot boards. I color coded events, themes, and symbols and arranged them in the order I want to include them on large, styrofoam-type poster board. It’s easier for me to look at it all at once, versus paging through a notebook to find the right note. Now everything is right there in front of me. The novel is going to be in three parts, and I’m almost done with Part One. My goal is to finish Part Two before I go to Dublin in the middle of August, then write most of Part Three after I return because that part takes place in Dublin. While there, I plan to visit some locations and look through the eyes of the main character so I can accurately write about it. I’ve been writing every day and am plugging along as I tell the story of Kelly Lynch and how her friend, Shannon, led her to her true purpose in life.

I’m also going to be setting up an author webpage with it’s own blog that will track my progress. Once that’s set up, I’ll be promoting it here and then you can follow me on that avenue if you’d like.

If you are looking for a great book to read this summer, consider Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver. I had the opportunity of briefly meeting Liz at BookCon in June, where I received an advance copy. Set in Dublin, the novel develops the story of Oliver Ryan and is full of suspense. Talk about signs…when I started reading it, I had no idea it was set in Dublin, or that Liz Nugent hails from Ireland. I couldn’t put it down! It’s going to be released later this summer here in the USA. I highly recommend Unraveling Oliver.

Have a splendid day, and thanks for being a part of my journey.

Until Next Time,

Jill

 

PART THREE OF “THE UNIVERSE IS AT IT AGAIN!”: Welcome to Family!

This is Part Three in a series of posts titled “The Universe Is At It Again!” To read Part One, please click here. To read Part Two, please click here.

The other interesting feature on my report is that Ancestry matches my DNA up with others who have already had their DNA tested, and then provides links to possible family members with percentage probabilities that they are, indeed, a relative of some kind.

For instance, Ancestry was “extremely confident” the name on the top of my list was a second cousin. They were right. It is my mom’s cousin DM.

I have a very small family, so the large number of names on my list of potential “relatives” intrigued me.  I was going to wait until the end of the month to begin poking around, but last week, I showed a fellow teacher my report because he was interested in getting his own DNA analyzed and wanted to see what it was all about.

The second name on my list of potential relatives or matches, one that Ancestry had labeled “extremely high” that this person was my second cousin, is a gentleman, AT, from Minnesota. I clicked on his profile as I showed my friend how cool it was that this information was available, even though I had no idea who AT was. We didn’t have family in Minnesota, so who could this guy be?

I read the first few sentences of the AT’s profile out loud, then paused mid-sentence. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I then yelled, “Holy shit!” My friend looked at me, as did the others who were around us, as my mouth gaped wide open and my eyes became as big as saucers.

The man in the profile, AT, wrote that his mother, K, was adopted, and he listed her birth parents’ names and her original last name.

Her birth parents’ names were the same as my Grandpa C.’s, the one who I thought was Irish, and he and K shared the same last name.

Holy shit, indeed.

Grandpa had a sister I never knew about.

Mind blown. Literally.

I never would have expected this in a million years. Finding missing family members only happens in the movies or in books, or to other people who lead much more interesting lives. It doesn’t happen to little old me.

But here it was, right in front of me. K is my Grandpa C.’s sister, my Uncle G and my father’s aunt, my great aunt. The DNA confirms it.

I couldn’t contain my excitement and raced home after dismissal to write AT a message. “I think my grandfather was your mother’s brother,” I typed, along with some other details and my email address, then hit send with a ridiculous grin on my face.

I anxiously checked for a reply all day Tuesday, but none came. No worries, though, as I had an afternoon date with my nephew, I, for our annual early summer boardwalk excursion. We had a lot of fun on the rides, at the aquarium, and enjoying pizza and ice cream. By the time I got home, I was exhausted!

I drifted off to sleep rather quickly, slept right through the night, and hit snooze as soon as my alarm went off on Wednesday morning. On the alarm’s second ring, I hit snooze again, but something was nagging at me to check my email. I put on my glasses, opened my mailbox, and there it was.

A reply from AT’s sister.

Scratch that.

A reply from my first cousin once removed, KT.

KT is one of seven children born to my great Aunt K (including AT). That’s at least seven new first cousins for my Uncle G. KT said that her sisters and brother all live in various parts of the country, and that they have been looking for her mother’s brother’s family for a long time.

Man, my father would have loved all of this!

Grandpa C.

KT included three photographs with her email, one being her mother’s favorite photo of her brother from when Grandpa C. was very young. Aunt K kept it all this time.

At work, I held up that picture of Grandpa C. alongside my face, and almost everyone remarked at the resemblance between the two of us.

Before writing KT back, I knew I had to tell my Uncle G about this amazing discovery, so I headed over to his house after school. As I began to read KT’s email to him, I handed him the three pictures that accompanied the email.

Uncle G got up as I was reading and handed me a framed picture from his table.

It was the same picture of Grandpa that KT emailed to me, her mother’s favorite picture of her brother.

Uncle G and I talked about what he could remember Grandpa’s family.  He thought all along that Grandpa might have had a sister that was put up for adoption, but he was never sure if that was true or not. He knew Grandpa’s father wasn’t in the picture at all but doesn’t know anything at all about him, and that Grandpa had an older brother but he never met him (nobody knows where he ended up either; apparently my father was named after him). Uncle G told me what could recall about his grandmother, S, who was Grandpa’s and Aunt K’s mother, but it wasn’t very much.

I brought the picture book he gave me last summer with me.  We slowly paged through it and found two old black and white pictures of a light-haired little girl, each with Aunt K’s name written in pencil on it.

Grandpa had kept his sister’s pictures all along, too.

Uncle G couldn’t believe all of this and loved learning he had cousins. He hates technology and has never used a computer or a smart phone at all, so seeing my Ancestry report on my phone and how I could click on the links blew his mind.

Me Holding Grandpa C.’s Picture

I took a picture of Uncle G and of me holding that framed picture of Grandpa that KT had emailed to me, as well as some other pictures of Grandpa from his life. When I got home, I wrote KT back and emailed her all of the photos I had, including the two pictures of her mom.

On Friday, AT sent me an email, so I am now in contact with two new cousins. Of course, both sides have a lot of questions, and we all wish that Grandpa and Aunt K could have connected with each other before they passed on. Underneath all of our excitement, there are some threads of sadness interweaving with this miraculous story. Consider that Aunt K and Grandpa lived two towns away from each other in the early 1940s but never knew it.

This is the stuff novels are made of, and I’m living it!

I’m looking forward to staying in touch with my new cousins and to learning more about my family heritage. One of the first places I am going once school is finished is to the library to continue researching my background.

If it weren’t for my spirit guide, I’d never be on this path in my journey in the first place. Thanks, TG, for leading me to family. And thanks to the Universe. You never cease to amaze me.

All I wanted to know is if I was truly Irish.

With the payoff from that originally disappointing less-than-1%-Irish being a whole new lot of cousins that I never knew existed, I’ll gladly take it.

Welcome to Family.

PART TWO OF “THE UNIVERSE IS AT IT AGAIN!”: AN ANSWER

If you missed Part One, click here to read that first because this post continues my story…

Fast forward to April 2017. With another trip to Dublin booked for this coming August and an overhaul of the novel I am writing, I decided to get my DNA analyzed from Ancestry.

I figured, what the hell? Maybe I’d be able to clear up that Galicia/Austria/Russia/Poland confusion, but most of all, I was hoping to learn that I was, indeed Irish.

I ordered my Ancestry kit with a $20 off discount and it arrived on April 29. The kit provides specific instructions about how to spit into the little sample tube they provided.

I know, I thought the same thing: Why do I need instructions?

Well, it turns out that the process of spitting saliva into the tube took longer than I thought. I first had to activate my kit on my computer, and before attempting my saliva collection, I had to wait 30 minutes after eating or drinking anything.

When those 30 minutes were up, I followed the directions to collect my saliva, but since I couldn’t have any water, it took a long time to collect the right amount (minus bubbles, mind you).

Once I had enough of my saliva in the tube, I clicked the tube together to release the “stabilizing fluid.” I then packed it in the little, prepaid shipping box it came with and mailed it on Monday, May 1. I received an email on May 5 that it was received on Ancestry’s end and that it would take 6 to 8 weeks to receive my results. My sample hit Ancestry’s lab on May 23 with another disclaimer that it could still take 6 to 8 weeks due to high demand.

I was prepared to coast through the rest of the school year and the first part of summer without knowing my heritage, but eleven days later on June 3, I received my results via email. Little did I know the very unexpected and wonderful surprises the universe had waiting for me!

First of all, here’s my heritage:

Great Britain: 57%. I figured this would be a high number, and I was right. Must be why I love teaching British literature and bland food.

Scandinavian: 13%. Shocking! I had no idea I was of Scandinavian descent. When I tell people this, most look at me funny because I have blonde hair and blue eyes. Some have said, “Well, it’s obvious you are Scandinavian,” and aren’t surprised at all. However, if you look at my family as a whole, the only three people with the typical Scandinavian features of light hair and light eyes are me, my Grandpa C., and my 3-year-old nephew, I. My dad and uncle were both blonde when they were young, but their hair changed and their eyes weren’t blue. Again, must be why I love teaching about the Vikings and Beowulf! Let’s go a Viking!

Europe East: 10%. This is the line that extends to Poland, Russia, Austria, Ukraine, Galicia, etc., so I expected this region to show up. I was hoping that the test would narrow down the actual country my Grandma C.’s parents actually emigrated from. However, an offshoot of my ancestry report clusters my DNA on a map of this region right where Galicia would have been, so I’m going with Galicia. Kielbasa for all!

Italy/Greece: 9%. WHAT? Seriously? I’m Italian or Greek? Holy cannoli! This shocked the daylights out of me. I would have guessed any other heritage before Italian/Greek. My husband was very pleased to learn that he did, indeed, marry an “Italian Girl.” His father would have been over the moon to learn that I had Italian heritage!

Europe West: 6%. Germany, Belgium, and France fall into this region.  My Grandma M.’s grandparents were born in Germany, so this wasn’t a big surprise. Confirmation: German. Dad’s up in heaven screaming “Yah vull!” right now.

Iberian Peninsula: 3%. Spain and Portugal make up the Iberian Peninsula, and this one was a nice surprise. Interesting fact: Portugal is directly across the Atlantic Ocean from where I live. Neat!

Ireland: Less than 1%. I am Irish after all! While I was initially disappointed, at least Ireland showed up. I’ll take it!

Caucasus: Less than 1%. I know what you are thinking…where the hell is Caucasus? It’s a region encompassing Georgia, Irian, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and more. Another Easter egg for sure.

On my report, I can click on each region to not only learn more about it, but also to take a closer look at my percentages and compare mine to other people from the same region. It’s pretty cool that I have a solid cluster in both the East Europe region (Galicia-the yellow spot in the map to the left) and also in a community called Early Settlers of New York.

But there’s more, a whole lot more to this story! Please look for Part 3 tomorrow!

Part One of “The Universe Is At It Again!”: Who Am I?

Who are you? Or better yet, who am I? That’s the quintessential question, isn’t it? And I think every one of us is searching for that elusive answer, despite how confident we might be.

Who am I, indeed? What makes me ME?

One of my biggest regrets is never preserving each of my four grandparents’ stories…their backgrounds, families, cultures, heritages, and what made each of them THEM.

Sure, I talked with them a bit when I was young, but I don’t remember much of anything because I never took the time to write anything down.

That part of my story, their individual stories comprised of their contributions to my genetic blueprint, is forever lost.

Huge regret.

HUGE.

I do recall being told over the years that my heritage includes Russian, English, German, and a tad bit of Irish.

Tad bit of Irish? With my connection to all things Ireland over the past 3 years, I longed for more than just a “tad” bit of Irish in my background.

So, last summer, I decided to see if I could find out exactly that that “tad” was comprised of.

Three weeks before I left for Dublin, I began researching my genealogy hoping to find an Irish connection, specifically through my Grandpa C. He never shared much of anything about his background or family, but I vaguely recall him saying there was Irish mixed in with his mostly English heritage.

Our local library offers free Ancestry access to anyone with a library card, so I spent a few summer afternoons playing detective as I tried to uncover at least one Irish link. The more I searched, the more discoveries about my family heritage I made, but with each click ahead I fell further behind on making a concrete Irish connection.

All in all, I ended up learning a lot, but I was unable to confirm or deny what it was that brought me to the library in the first place.

For starters, I found out pretty quickly that my supposed Russian heritage was perhaps incorrectly attributed.

Census from 1930

The line in my heritage through my father’s mother’s family provided very quick and solid information. Grandma C. always said that she was Russian, and she even knew how to speak it. However, I think she might have been mistaken. On every census and official document I could find on her family line, the home country of her parents, J and E, was different. The earliest I could find from the early 1900s listed Galicia (not the one in Spain) as their home country, and that changed over the years to Austria, Poland, and Russia.

Galicia was one of those recurring terms from last summer that guided me, and I wrote a separate entry about that here.

I unearthed more information about Grandma C.’s line, and my mother’s parents and their lines, but the line from my dad’s father gave me the least amount of data. All I found was Grandpa C.’s marriage certificate to Grandma C. (the one with parents from Galicia), which included both of their parent’s names, one entry in a census report from 1940, and his birth and death dates.

When he heard I was trying to learn about our family, my Uncle G (Dad’s brother) gave me a red binder filled with photos from Grandpa C.’s side and obituary clippings and memorial cards from many members of his family. I meticulously went through the album hoping to find a link to Ireland, but I came up with nothing. Most of the pictures didn’t have names, and the ones that did were people who both my Uncle and I had never met or really heard of before.

I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to confirm anything Irish in my heritage. Drats.

I traveled to Dublin in August, unsure of whether or not I had any legit ties to what has become one of my favorite places in the world. That trip changed my life in so many ways regardless of whether I’m truly Irish or not.

When I returned from my trip, the frenzy of back to school hit hard, and I abandoned my genealogy research for the time being. I instead focused on my novel, my writing, and my responsibilities. Another summer would be here, soon, with time for me to once again pursue learning about the origins of my heritage.

Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow!

 

A Letter to Two Heroes, Revisited On This Memorial Day

I have always remembered the reason for Memorial Day and Memorial Day weekend and have honored it by remembering those lost, going to a ceremony or two, putting flags in my yard, wearing red, white, and blue, or raising awareness through my writing. For me, the true meaning hit home twice, in 2010 and 2011, when two very special young men who spent time in my classroom paid the ultimate sacrifice, each with immense courage and bravery.

One is Sergeant Ronald A. Kubik, Army Ranger, and the other is Lance Corporal Nicholas S. Ott, United States Marine Corps.

Both are forever heroes.

On Friday, I taught my current journalism and English 11 students about these two heroes who sat in the same seats as them at some point in their lives. It’s important to me to keep Ron and Nick’s legacies alive with the hope that today’s generation can learn from them and possibly emulate something from each of their examples in their own lives. I am now toying with the idea of writing a curriculum unit for other teachers to use in their classrooms, not just necessarily focusing on Nick and Ron but on other New Jersey heroes lost in all conflicts.

Below is a letter to Ron and Nick that I originally wrote and posted in 2015. I updated it for 2017 as my thanks and tribute to both of them on this Memorial Day.

May 29, 2017

Dear Ron and Nick,

It’s been 15 and 13 years, respectively, that you were students in my English class.  You both sat at a desk for 180 days, Ron during 9th grade and Nick during 11th grade, and spent 50 minutes every day writing, reading, learning vocabulary, completing assignments, and earning your grade.  And during those 180 days, each of you made a lasting impact and taught lessons to someone who was supposed to be teaching you.

Ron, I will never forget how you read “Of Mice and Men” aloud in your best British accent, yet you read your part in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” with a thick, southern accent.  Laughter, that’s what I remember.  Pure laughter.  I remember you enjoyed writing, but as a freshman, you didn’t want to admit it.  How I wish I kept some of your essays and reflections, for they were good…much better than a typical 9th grader’s writing.  I remember your pride in your hometown, your blue mohawk, and your incredible effort on the football field, playing each game like it was the super bowl.  It wasn’t the same when you moved away, and there was a huge hole of missing spirit that couldn’t be filled by anyone else.  I am aware of the legacy you left at Manasquan High School and how you are still an inspiration in that building. Through the magic of social media, we caught up after you graduated and I enjoyed seeing the pictures of you in your band, and then as an Army Ranger.  I am sure the United States Army immediately knew that they were getting one of the best of the best. I know that you absolutely loved it when some of my students called you a badass merely from my verbal description of you. Then when they saw your pictures? Yeah. You loved every minute of their reactions and are still basking in that glow.

Nick, your smile and your work ethic are what I most remember about you.  No matter what it was you were doing, you always your best…in the classroom, on the field, on the stage…and you never, ever complained.  More often than not, you surprised even yourself by doing better than you ever expected, even though at times you weren’t a fan of what we were studying.  And that smile…that big, wonderful smile, with that impish spirit behind it…there’s no other smile like it.  I fondly remember your part in The Varsity Lettermen’s TWO acts for Hawkapalooza, working hard to perfect each routine, and selecting that perfect dress for your costume, the powder blue shift with the rhinestone broach.  That moment of greatness and sheer joy has never been matched on the Hawkapalooza stage since, except maybe the secret, surprise return of The Varsity Letterman the following year.  One of the best days in my life was the last time I saw you, when you were home on leave and stopped by the school for a visit after classes let out.  I was having an extremely bad day and wanted nothing more than to go home, and I got a call from the main office that someone was here to see me. That was the last thing I wanted, but my anguish was quickly replaced with excitement and happiness as I saw you round the corner of the hallway with that smile beaming as you walked down to my classroom.  We spent about 90 minutes catching up and talking, and those are the best 90 minutes I ever spent in my life.  While I don’t have a photograph of that moment, the picture in my mind’s eye is crystal clear, like it happened yesterday.

Words cannot express the extreme heartache and sadness that I, along with so many others, felt upon hearing the news that each of you had passed away.  In fact, I remember exactly where I was standing when I got the news about each of you.  Yet, upon learning that so many others were saved because of each of your actions, I had two new heroes to look up to for the rest of my life.

Not a day goes by when I do not think of both of you.  Several times every year, but especially on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I share your stories with my students who sit in the same desks that you did…stories of heroism, of bravery, and of courage.

I am forever grateful for the lessons you, the students, taught me, the teacher:

  • Actions, not words, matter.
  • Make your dreams a reality.
  • Put others before yourself.
  • Have an amazing life.

Thank you, Nick and Ron, for your lessons, for your sacrifice, and for leaving footprints along my life’s journey that can never be erased.  I will do my best to continue sharing your legacies and your stories for as long as I can.

With my utmost admiration, gratitude, honor, and respect.

Not everyone has a connection to someone to honor on Memorial Day. If you don’t, please visit my links below so you can learn more about Sgt. Ronald A. Kubik and Cpl. Nicholas S. Ott. You can also pick someone to learn about by visiting the NJ Run for the Fallen Honor Wall and the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial & Museum Wall of Faces.

Regardless of your politics, I urge you to take a moment this weekend to honor what the day means and stands for. Educate the young people in your life about the true meaning of Memorial Day and about real heroes like Nick and Ron and the thousands of others who gave their lives for the United States of America. Attend a local ceremony or service for an hour, and/or join in the National Moment of Silence at 3 PM Tomorrow.

Thank you to all the men and women who gave their lives while serving our country. I am grateful for your sacrifice and I honor your memory.

Until next time,

Jill

Image from NJ Run for the Fallen
Image from NJ Run for the Fallen
Image from Her Beautiful Monster - Mandi Bean
Image from Her Beautiful Monster – Mandi Bean