Family Fishing

Elena in the Mountains

Dear Elena,

A little history

My dad’s parents, Hunter (senior) and Mattie, grew up in a tiny little community called “Helton,” in northwest North Carolina, just a few minutes from the Virginia state line. They ended up moving to Charlotte, and that’s where my dad grew up. But in 1951, they bought some land and built a summer home (“the cabin”) in the community where they’d grown up.

They would spend as much time up there as they could, during the summers. My parents visited them there, even before I was born. So I was going to “the cabin” in a stroller.

As I got older, Helton and the cabin was my favorite place in the world. At first, it was just the creek to play in, the sound of the water rushing over the dam, and the seeming endless forest that surrounded us.

I got a bit older, and became obsessed with fishing in Helton Creek. At first it was just chubs and other “rough” fish. But after I caught my first trout, well, I was hooked.

The years passed, and I went to Helton whenever I could. I’ve got 6-7 generations of ancestors buried in the family cemetery behind the white house across the creek from the cabin, going back to the early 1800’s. I call them my “friendly ghosts,” and they make me feel welcome and happy whenever I’m back there.

So when you were born, I always had a dream of taking you to the cabin, and introducing you to Helton Creek. I also wanted my friendly ghosts to get a look at you, and see what an extraordinary grandchild I had gotten in the inimitable E-blast.

Some years ago, Ana and I ended up owning half of the cabin, but because we lived in California, it was really hard for us to look after it. Fortunately, in 2020, we were able to sell it to my cousin, Greg Pool, who lives in the Greensboro, NC area. Greg and his family moved into the cabin during Covid, Greg taught from there, and his kids (Liam, Avery, and Lily) went to Zoom school there.

Once I’d met the Pool family, I wanted you to meet those cousins too – they’re pretty cool people.

Elena goes to the mountains

This year, your parents were kind enough to let us arrange a visit to the mountains for you and your dad. Ana joined us too, so we had a group of four of us, staying at a house in a place called “Fee’s Branch Road,” about five minutes from the cabin.

I flew in a couple of days before everybody else, got the AirBnB opened up, and groceries in the refrigerator. Then I drove down to the Charlotte airport and picked you two up. It was time to head up to the mountains!

It was about a 2.5 hour drive up to the AirBnB from the airport. You played on your tablet most of the trip, but as we got to the mountains, you rolled down your window. “There’s so much to smell!” Yes, a lot to smell up there.


That evening, we outside and fished in the pond right next to the house. It was full of very stupid largemouth bass.

You didn’t catch any fish that evening, because we didn’t have any worms, but you got a couple of strikes, which was super cool.

The next day, Ana was going to be coming in from Charlotte in her own rental car, so you, your dad, and I had the morning and early afternoon to ourselves. We drove down into West Jefferson, the nearest real town. We needed a few grocery things, water shoes, and worms!

We got you the coolest water shoes ever, and then went to a store where your dad could get some local beers. This is you and me sitting outside that store.

We also found you an excellent ice cream cone of “orange dreamsicle.” Then we went to Wal-Mart. We split into two teams: Team Hot Sauce (David), and Team Worms (you and me). We found our worms immediately:

I think we won the contest.

Then we drove back up to the house, and pretty quickly headed back to the pond. We put a worm on a hook, and pretty soon, you had hooked your first fish – a largemouth bass! You got it to the shore, but you wanted me to hold it while you got the hook out. We did that one just fine.

The second one you caught, you couldn’t get the hook out, so you asked me to get the hook out of it. I was working on the hook, when I felt a hand up on my shoulder. It was you reaching up to grab the hemostat that sits in a magnetic clip on the strap of my fishing bag. You wanted the hook out of the fish, and the critter back in the water right now. I was so proud of you. Pretty quick, I had the hook out (we had squished down the barb of the hook) and the bass was back in the pond.

“Thanks buddy!” you said. My heart leapt with joy.

Ana arrives

Ana arrived that afternoon, after flying out from California. She got lost on the road that runs by our AirBnB, so we were sitting on the porch, talking to her on the phone, and could see her car going back and forth past our driveway. “No Ana, turn around and go back 100 feet!” you said.

Ana finally found her way to the house.

The Pools and the cabin

Our next day was a play date with our cousins, the Pool family. We got to the cabin, and I asked Avery if she could give you a tour. Y’all were out the door and gone. We visited with the Pools a little, and ate some lunch, but then it was creek time!

You and Avery Pool looking for crawdads. You found plenty.

I cannot express how much it meant to me to see you playing in Helton Creek. I played in that same creek, that same place, 60 years ago when I was a kid. And 60 years before that, my grandmother, Mattie Perkins, played in the same creek, in the same place – I’ve seen an old picture of her standing in it with her sister, Clara. That was in the early 1900’s – over 100 years ago. I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s quite possible that her grandmother played in that creek.

Just like my grandmother and her cousins, 110 years ago.

You had such a blast playing in the water, as I knew you would. It was especially fun because the Pool’s dog, Figment, thinks of Helton Creek as his own private swimming pool.

Elena Haupert and Figment Pool living their best lives

After that, we all sat on the bridge and just “visited.” Well, you stayed there for a little while to see if your dad would catch a trout (he did) but then you and Avery disappeared to go explore.


The next day was blueberry picking with the Pools. We drove out to Old Orchard Creek blueberry farm…

If I was a bear, I’d just live here.

We ended up with so many blueberries that we froze them. Then after you left, I made blueberry jam. I still have a few jars of it at our house in San Leandro.

Swimming hole

The next day was your last up in the mountains. The four of us had a quiet morning, and then went to the “swimming hole” on Helton Creek. For two hours, we did nothing – and everything – in the creek. Your dad decided to send a giant log floating down the creek, and spent 20 minutes maneuvering it into position so it would float.

But mostly we just waded around enjoying being in the creek on a warm summer day. At some point, I found a crawdad with just one claw. I lifted it out of the water so you could see it. It was a female, and she was covered with eggs on her underbelly. This blew your mind. You looked at her for a few seconds, then said we had to get her back in the water.

I put her under a rock, and then for the next minute or two, you stood right next to the rock to be sure none of us stepped on her.

Somehow, two hours flew by and we never noticed.

Time to go

The next day, we all drove back to Charlotte. You and your dad flew back to California, while Lisa and I drove up to Asheville to visit a friend.

Elena, I don’t know if you’ll remember much of this trip, but that picture of you playing in Helton Creek is the wallpaper on my computer. And the image is stored in my heart forever.

And somewhere, those old friendly ghosts, my grandmother among them, are smiling. “You got a good ‘un there, Lee,” they’re saying.

Yep, I got a good ‘un.


Protected: To Elena: On sleeping

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Okay Elena, you promised.

Dear Elena,

It was a perfectly normal Elena-Aby morning together today – August 4, 2022. I picked you up at 11:00 – you and Cherry and Cosmo all came blasting to the door. Your mom was taking a short break from work to get us out the door, which we did quite quickly, once you’d found two shoes that were different colors.

We went to the library, and honestly, I expected you to fuss a bit, because I’d mentioned the library yesterday, but you weren’t the least interested. This time, I said, “We’re going to the library.”

“Oh, cool.”

We got to the library, parked the car, and walked in. We wandered around the young readers’ section. You wanted books about Minecraft, Sonic, and Star Wars. Which is kind of okay. But I wanted you to have something that took you out of the grasp of American consumerism. Somehow you stumbled across the Jack and Annie Magic Treehouse collection, which you know well. You found one whose front cover appealed to you (it was about Jack and Annie going to Venice, on a mission for Merlin). That sold me, we got checked out, and…

Wait, before we leave the library, I have to tell you about a cool thing you did. As we were walking toward the section where your books were, a woman was approaching us, carrying a wee one, and a bunch of books. I’m not sure what happened, but suddenly there was a small crash, all her books were on the floor, and the little guy was wailing because the noise scared him.

Without hesitation, you darted forward, recovered the books from the floor, and handed them to the mom, who had settled down her little one. I was so incredibly proud of you.

Back at the parking lot

I’d promised you some kind of treat, and you wanted… it took you a second to remember, but frozen yogurt. Conveniently enough, there’s a frozen yogurt shop a five-minute walk from the library.

“We’re just leaving the car in the shade,” said I, and we happily walked over to the Safeway shopping center. When we got ready to cross E. 14th Street, I held out my hand, you took it without notice, and we crossed.

Sadly, the fro-yo shop was closed for some reason.

“We need a Plan B,” you said, a child of the Wild Kratts, who are always needing a Plan B.

“Let’s get boba.”

I knew that the 85 Bakery, across the parking lot, had boba, so we headed over that way.

“If they don’t have boba, Plan C will be a doughnut,” you said. I like a kid who has a Plan C ready, in case Plan B fails.

Plan B and the walk to the bakery

As we walked from the fro-yo place to the bakery, I took your hand – the parking lot of that shopping center is chaotic, and I just didn’t trust all the drivers. But I wanted to make it clear that I trusted you…

“Elena, I want you to understand that if you had to walk from that fro-yo place by yourself to the bakery, I would 100% trust you to do it safely on your own. It just gives me a little extra confidence since I’m there, and this parking lot is nuts.

“But just so we’re clear, if you had to do that walk, what would you be watching for at each street?”


This is exactly the right answer. You see, when I first let you run from the mailbox at our townhouse complex to our house, I wanted to be sure you’d be safe. So I’d say, “When you run from the mailbox to the house, you have to watch out for wildebeests and cars!”

After a while, I’d quiz you before I let you go.

“What are you watching out for?”

“Cars. And wildebeests.”

“Good. Off you go.”

We got to the sidewalk but I didn’t let go of your hand. Just because it felt so awesome to hold it.”

“You know Elena, you’re totally safe, even if I don’t hold your hand. But sometimes I hold it, just because it makes me so happy to hold your hand. See, when you’re 15, you’re not going to want to hold my hand, and that will make me a little sad.”

Without hesitation…

“I’ll still hold your hand when I’m 15.”

“Really? You will?”

In your most “Don’t be silly, Aby” voice: “Of course.”

Plan C

The bakery had boba, but after you tasted it, you decided it wasn’t what you wanted. So we went to Plan C – a doughnut from Safeway. We walked down the sidewalk to Safeway, holding hands for no reason of safety whatsoever.

“How long is it until I’m 15?”

“Eight years.”

[Pause] “That’s really not that far away.”

[Pause] “No, it’s going to be here before either of us knows it.”

We got two doughnuts – one for your and one for Great-Gran. You did the whole self-checkout thing, and we walked back over to the library, where we found two awesome stone benches under a tree.

“This one’s yours, this one’s mine.”

You started in on your blue-icing doughnut (“This is the best doughnut ever!”) while I began reading about Jack and Annie’s adventure to Vienna. I wasn’t more than a few pages in, when you got up, came over, and sat on my bench. You leaned into me, and took in the story. Which obviously made me blissful.

Too soon, it was time to take you to Star Wars – Lego camp. We used a piece of doughnut bag as a bookmark (can’t fold pages on a library book!) and got in the car.

15 minutes later we walked into the community center where your Star Wars Lego camp is.

“Do you wanna sign you in, or do you want me to sign you in?”

“You sign me in, but use my initials.”


30 seconds after we’d walked in, your backpack was on the shelf, and you were bent over Star Wars Lego figures with other kids. Chiara’s mom was picking you up, and you were good to go. I said good-bye and thanked you for a great morning. You waved without looking up – you are a child of the moment, and at that point, you were in a Galaxy Far Far Away.

You, one minute after we walked in the door of your Star Wars Lego camp

But me, I rushed home to write this. Cause you promised, Elena. You promised me that you’ll hold my hand when you’re 15. And that’s as good a reason as I can think of to look forward to the year 2030.

Love, Aby

Diving Family

Hawaii 2021

It was right when the Covid vaccine became a reality that I knew we’d have to book the trip sooner than later. The entire nation – the entire world – had been under a pall for a year, and nobody was traveling. Then, in late 2020, it became clear that vaccines were right around the corner. At the time, we thought that would be banishment of Covid, as we’d banished polio and smallpox. Silly us, but that was the belief.

I knew that when people realized that travel was an actual possibility, they’d start booking vacations as fast as their browsers could get to Expedia.

We’d been selling our granddaughter, Elena, on Hawaii since she was old enough to look at pictures of tropical fish. Apparently she bought what we were selling because it reached a point that she’d hear a mention of Hawa’i, and say, “When am I going to Hawai’i?”

I wanted to be able to say, “For your 7th birthday,” so I planned and booked a vacation house for December of 2021 in September of 2020. Yes, the others involved looked at me askance, but such long-term planning feels quite normal to me. Like I said, I thought that a covid vaccine reality would cause a run on vacation destinations like had never been seen in modern times.

We ended up here, along Ali’i Drive, right at the Mile 3 marker.

John and I landed at the Kona airport on December 13th, and had an evening to do grocery shopping and get dinner at On the Rocks. And then enjoy our first sunset from the upstairs porch:

Looking south from our Kona vacation home

The next day, Lisa and Liz flew in (I got real good at airport pick-up and drop-off by the time we were done), and got settled. The day after that, David, Mary, and Elena flew in, got their own car, and just rocked up at the house. Elena was immediately in love with the place because of this:

Elena’s favorite part of the house

Okay, so Elena’s favorite part of the house wasn’t the pool. It was the elevator. The house has three floors, and while there are outdoor stairs connecting all three, the elevator is way cooler if you’re seven years old. But the arrangement (the stairs, not the elevator) allowed Elena, and then Elena and Amelia, to flow effortlessly among three floors of family and friends.

Our first morning, we all went down to Kahalu’u Beach, just two miles south, and the most popular snorkeling beach on the Kona Coast.

Kahalu’u Beach Park

Elena had been practicing with her snorkel and mask all summer, getting ready for this day:

And was zipping all over the community pool looking at pretend critters and practicing all the critter signs we taught her. But you will note that she’s not wearing fins. She wasn’t the least interested in the fins, and even as we loaded the car to drive down to Kahalu’u, she said, “I don’t want my fins.” We took ’em anyway.

We got there, and got her into her wetsuit. Which was just barely big enough for her by the time December rolled around. But fortunately her dad knew a technique that he’d seen me use on his brother 20-odd years ago:

Then she sat down on the rocks at the edge of the beach, and saw dozens of other people with fins on.

“Let me try my fins.”

We put the fins on her. She then stuck her face in the water, and saw a couple of yellow tangs, a few sergeant majors, and maybe a black durgeon swimming around.

She was gone. I mean, she was in the water, hauling after those fish, just as she’d been doing in the swimming pool. What immediately struck me was how good her fin technique was. Most people, when they first get fins on, bicycle their legs. The goal is to keep a slightly bent knee, and kick from the hip. For whatever reason, that’s exactly what Elena did, and she motored through the water like a speedboat.

“I guess one of us better follow her.”

Which is what we’d do on every snorkeling outing for the next 2.5 weeks. This first day, we all kicked to the outer part of the park area, where the water was a bit deeper and there were few people. With multiple spotters around her, Elena would zip from person to person – whoever had something interesting to see.

Pretty soon, John found a moray eel, and yelled to the group that there was a moray under him. Elena appeared out of nowhere, and was yelling into her snorkel, pointing with one hand, and giving the “moray” sign with the other, above the water, so everybody would know.

We learned that 30-45 minutes was about the limit of what we could do before Elena became chilled and/or exhausted. But I cannot overstate the joy and fun that we’d have during that time period. Elena would rarely have her face out of the water, and within a few days, she was free-diving down to 5-7 feet to get a closer look at the critters.

Snorkel buddies

Snorkeling with Elena was easily one of the top one or two highlights of my trip.

The next awesome thing was Shannon and Amelia Ozceri showing up. Unfortunately, Berend couldn’t get away because of w*rk, but we were delighted to have 2/3 of the Ozceri clan there. When I went to pick them up at the airport, Elena said, “I wanna go!”

Welcome to Kona!

From that point on, Elena and Amelia were pretty much inseparable. There was occasionally some friction, which is to be expected. But mostly they had a blast with each other. Sharon and Amelia shared a room up on the 3rd floor, the same floor that David, Mary, and Elena were on. So early in the morning, we’d hear feet running around upstairs as the girls got breakfast and ready for the day.

You’re disturbing our Minecraft
Do you have a game better than Minecraft?

Unfortunately, we never got a picture of it, but the girls also commandeered the walk-in closet in the master bedroom and turned it into a fort. They would sit in there for long periods, Elena drawing, and Amelia reading Harry Potter.

Except when they were in the pool.

How we spent our afternoons
Take the picture quickly, we need to get in.
Look out below! (the perspective is wrong – Elena is not jumping on Amelia)

Maybe my favorite part of the whole trip was the family dinners at the outside table. As the sun was setting, we’d prepare meals in one or both kitchens, and carry them down the stairs. Then we’d sit 15′ from the ocean and 5′ from the pool, eat and visit.

Shelly and Kevin at dinner

A couple of nights, we brought in restaurant food, but mostly we just cooked simple meals. Pretty soon, Amelia and Elena would get bored with the grown-ups and retreat to the lounge chairs next to the pool. So they were content and we were content to enjoy the evening and watch the sunset.

Evenings – well, they went pretty quick. It was time for the girls to get ready for bed, and most of us would settle down soon after dark and think about what was coming the next day. Which always started with coffee and…

There were a couple of women who would come out to surf and enter the water right below us, always between 6:30-7:00am. So we’d drink coffee with the big windows open and watch them head out. We could also see the surfers, a little further down the coast, catching the first waves of the day.

We finally got the group all together when Shelly and Kevin made it in from Austin. With that, there were 12 of us, and it was absolutely glorious chaos. They were on the ground floor with John, and they’d stay up half the night, then sleep in. But they were always up for whatever was going on.

One day, we all went out on a dive boat with Jack’s Dive Locker – it was a private charter, so it was just our family. Lisa, John, and I were on scuba, and everybody else snorkeled. Amelia and Elena lost their minds snorkeling at the dive sites, and were constantly peppering the guide with questions about what they saw.

Dive boat in Hawaii? Yes, thanks – don’t mind if I do

Another day, David, Mary, Elena, Lisa, Shannon, and Amelia went up north to Kohala to ride horses across the pastures there. Both Shannon and Lisa are horsewomen of decades of experience, but they said they’d never done something like that. It was obviously an amazing experience for all.

One day, we all went down south to try a beach down there, but it didn’t really work out. What did work out was stopping for lunch at a cafe. There was no way we were going to get a seat inside the cafe, and it was raining, so we had a picnic in the car.

And that’s what’s amazing about our crowd – when it’s raining, and things don’t go as planned, nobody panics. We just switch to Plan B. Or Plan C. Elena and Amelia think that Plans B-F are just how life goes. In fact, Elena learned about “Plan B” from the Kratz Brothers, so when you say, “We’re switching to Plan B,” she just rolls with it. Including eating pizza in the back of a car in a cafe parking lot.

We got the Turo car with the Picnic in Back option

David, Mary, Elena, Shannon, and Amelia went kayaking at Captain Cook one day. They said the snorkeling boat crowds were insane, but I’m pretty sure they had a good time…

Go over in that direction, Mom.

One evening, we all went out to a luau. It was at the King Kamehameha, i.e. the in-town luau that’s been there for 20 or 30 years. Watching the girls watching the keikeis perform was worth the whole thing.

Elena’s birthday (known by others as “Christmas”) came toward the end of the trip. We wanted to make the house a little special around Christmas time, but Christmas trim pickings were slim. However, somehow I found the perfect things:

Santa and reindeer found us, even in Kona. Maybe the unicorns lit the way.

Finally, on December 29th, the last of us (Lisa, Liz, David, Mary, Elena, and I) closed up the house and headed to the airport. John and I had arrived on the 13th. It was time to go home, but it was hard to leave. What sticks with me are the memories…

  • Coffee with the windows open watching the surfers and paddle boarders go out.
  • Snorkeling with the girls and watching them lose their minds at the ocean.
  • Extended pool sessions until we dragged blue-lipped girls, kicking and screaming, into towels for post-swim snacks.
  • Board games in the evening
  • Renewing and creating bonds among the Haupert/Jones constellation members. Shannon, Amelia, Kevin, Shelly – they are family to us and we are all blessed to have them. @Berend – it sucked more than anything ever sucked that you weren’t there.
  • Dinners around the big table, with the beach 30′ behind us, and the sun setting.
  • Taking Kevin for his first two scuba dives ever. We had a blast, and at no time on either dive did we die.
  • Christmas/birthday celebration with impossibly tacky, but perfect, lit-up unicorns.
  • Four generations of our clan at the luau.

Things flowed, plans changed. Restaurants were full or couldn’t seat us because they were short of staff (covid). Rain came and kayaking had to be postponed. No matter what, we had a blast, and I was blessed to be part of it.

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To Elena, from Aby: Reading

[Originally published in September of 2020]

Dear Elena,
You are reading this little essay. That seems obvious, of course, but have you ever wondered how you learned to read?

It’s an extraordinary story. I say extraordinary because I’ve never seen anything like it. Recall that I wasn’t around when your dad or your Uncle John learned to read. Maybe every child learning to read is an equally compelling story – now I wonder.

But I know your story and it’s worth telling.

You have been around books since birth, a gift which cannot be overstated. My parents, Hunter and Peggy, got to meet you only once. I think you were three or four months old. They had a long weekend with you and that was your one encounter with them for your life. And yet within those short days, here’s what you did:

Peggy holds you, while Hunter reads to you. March 2015

I’ll leave some more images at the end of this piece so you can get a sense of the role books have played in your life. But your parents have been reading to you at bedtime since, well, forever. And every adult in your family has sat and read to you. So early on, you were intrigued with the whole process. How did these scribbles become magical stories? Here’s you, age two and a half, studying a shopping list I had prepared. This was at Glacier National Park in Montana. You wanted to understand how this piece of paper could tell me what we needed at the store – you sat and studied on it for quite a while.

You reading a shopping list at Glacier National Park, July 2017

Or look at the picture at the top of this piece. There’s you and grandmother Lisa, whom you’ve called “Ana” since you understood that people had names. [1] We had borrowed you from your parents for an overnight in Monterey, and stopped at a taqueria in Seaside on the way home. There you sit, focused on the menu as if you were deciding between fish tacos and a quesadilla.

And now fast forward to 2020. During the 2019-2020 school year, you were in an extraordinary preschool in Berkeley, called Via Nova. I don’t know how much you remember of it, or will ever remember, but I can’t imagine a better place for you. The environment there was positive, creative, and the teachers just constantly loved on the kids. Maybe one day I’ll write an essay about Via Nova. But when Covid hit in March of 2020, Via Nova, like all the schools, shut down. All your daily learning and creative opportunities vanished, almost overnight.

As millions of parents the world around scrambled to find ways to occupy and educate their kids, Lisa decided she was going to teach you to read. She researched online and ultimately found a phonics program called Logic of English. And then she dove into it as she does with anything that has her attention, but this time you were on the trip with her. Four or five days a week, she studied the upcoming lesson, created the necessary training materials, and got the workbook ready. And then she and you put your heads down and got to it. Sometimes you were a dog, and she would bark, to which you’d respond in English (you were always a very clever, special dog).

You made a book that you could read on your own.

Suddenly, the alphabet as we knew it vanished. It became “ah-a-ā”, “bә”, “kә-sә”, “dә”, etc. And man, it was slow going. You’d crawl around under the table, but Lisa just wouldn’t give up. Phoneme after phoneme got seared into your brain. Eventually, well, I remember walking past the table and hearing, “pә”. “i”. “gә”. “pә-i-gә.” “Pi…,” “Pig.” “PIG!” And feeling shivers. I was listening to you learn to read your first words.
What I love about phonics is that it is the essence of “Teach somebody to fish…” You can be taught that the symbol “cat” means the four-legged feline critter. But you have no idea what to do with the word “bat.” However, give you the phonemes – the basic building blocks of the language – and you have the tools you need to learn every word.
Once that basic phoneme foundation was created, you became unstoppable. I watched in wonder as you and Lisa had hour-long phonics sessions, you matching words with pictures, scrambling pieces of paper with phonemes on them to form words, and laughing with delight as you worked out another word. Here’s you with a book that you created from the phonics program. You had to identify and sound out each word and then you got to create a book of words you could spell. And thus could read an entire book:

It’s now September of 2020 – six months after you and Ana first sat down at the dinner table at your house with the phonics book. Ana has, indeed, taught you to read. If she stopped teaching you right now, you’d still be well on your way to reading for life. But be very sure that, at this moment, your reading lessons with Ana are far from over. There are another 6-7 lessons in the set that you’re working on now, and then I think you move onto Book 2. I know I’ll be sad when phonics lessons are over – I guess Lisa will be heartbroken.

For now, though, we are experiencing the avalanche of your reading journey. Everywhere you go, everything you look at, becomes an opportunity to sound out a word. Last night was Friday – the regular Sleepover Friday, followed by Pancake Saturday. You looked at my pajama shirt…

Can you read this?

“Lllll.” “iiii” [Me: “it’s the long ‘i’ here – like ‘bike.'”] “Eye…” “Fә”. “Llll-eye-fә.” “Life!”
“i” “sә”. “i-sә”. “Is!”
“Gә” “oooooo” [“‘oo’ like ‘book'”] “oo”. “dә”. “Gә-oo-dә”. “Good.”
“Life Is Good! And a guitar!”

Life is, indeed, good, Elena. I am blessed to have gotten to watch you on your first steps to literacy. I know that Ana will be part of you for the rest of your life, but I doubt she’ll ever give you a gift as great as the one she has been giving you the last six months. I hope you’ll remember that as a dark curtain fell across the entire world and everybody had to stay home, your grandmother Lisa/Ana took you under her wing and all but single-handedly taught you to read.

With abiding love, Aby.

[1] When your parents asked us what “grandparent” names we wanted, Lisa immediately chose “Nana.” I was kind of lost until your Uncle John suggested “Abuelito“. So people referred to us as “Nana” and “Abuelito” around you. Of course, as you began to speak, you couldn’t quite say those names. “Nana” came out “Ana” (the first “A” as in “Father”, likely because of your dad and nanny speaking Spanish to you). And “Abuelito” became “Aby” (my spelling, pronounced “Abby”). Grandparents quickly realize that the child truly picks the name, and we’ve been “Ana” and “Aby” ever since. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

You and John in Baja, Mexico. April 2018. The seashell book went everywhere with you.
You reading on your first birthday. December 2015
Lisa, you, and me reading Little Fox in the Forest (no words!)
You and Ana reading, September 2017


To Elena, From Aby: Togetherness

[Originally posted in February of 2021]

Dear Elena,

It’s a month after your 6th birthday, and your life is speeding up faster than I can believe. Which is why I’m pausing today to write about this – I wonder if it won’t be gone before too much longer.

Ever since you were little, you’ve craved and sought close physical contact with “your people.” You hold hands, you burrow into laps, you sprawl across us as if to maximize body contact. I present as Exhibit A you and your Uncle John at Glacier National Park, in July of 2017.

John and Elena at Glacier Lake, July 2017

You were two and a half… Look at that lean-in. “This is my Uncle John, and he belongs to me.”

Or this one. This is the two of you last month watching a Hanukkah video. For those of us in your “pack,” it’s a sublime experience, made only more so by its purity. You are still at an age where you (mostly) go where your nose and heart lead you. You don’t cuddle or hug somebody because you think you’re supposed to – you do it because that’s what you want, right now, in that moment.

There was that time out at Wildcat Creek where you and I went on a hike/climb in the dry creek bed. We stopped to have our lunch, and picked out two appropriately flat rocks to sit on. You ate for a couple of minutes, and then said, “Can I sit on your lap?” Trick question? So you sat in my lap and we ate our sandwiches. Then I took this picture.

Lee and Elena at Wildcat Creek, November 2020

Of course, as you age, you’ll learn to follow the social rules that we all do – it’s a necessity of navigating modern society. But for now, when you clamber onto a lap, we know it’s because at that moment, that’s where you wanted to sit, period. And I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that it is quite a blessing to have one’s lap chosen as where you want to sit.

Which brings me to yesterday. We’ve made a bit of a routine of picking oranges from a neighbor’s tree and taking them to a local food pantry, where they’re gratefully received. Yesterday, we filled two grocery bags. With Lisa/Ana watching, I climbed into the tree on a ladder and tossed down oranges.

Elena in an orange tree, February 2021

You caught them (“¡Lista!”) and put them in the bag. Of course, you demanded to climb into the tree to pick one, so I spotted and you climbed up and got the last orange for the bag. Then we drove over, handed over the oranges, and went for our reward – a doughnut from the nearby shop.

Sitting in the chilly wind we munched on our doughnuts (“I want half of mine and half of yours.” “Cool.”). Then you silently crawled into my lap and leaned into my shoulder. Was it to warm up? Was it just to be close to one of your pack? Do I care? I was looking at this picture yesterday, and thought, “That’s a different little girl. Not the little girl I played with a year or even six months ago.

Oh, I shall miss that little girl awfully. But the one who has replaced her catches oranges thrown to her, does some arithmetic without her fingers, and sometimes says things that reflect an insight for which none of us would have credited her. I am proud and humbled to be her granddad and can’t wait to get to know her better and see where our adventures take us.

I close this with a moment from a couple of weeks ago. I was over at your house helping your dad build your exceptionally cool two-story fort. I was standing near the back deck when you came out of your parents’ room, and across the back deck. You purposefully walked to me, quietly said, “Aby,” and held up your arms in a way that every small child (and grown-up) knows means, “Pick me up.” So I did. You wrapped yourself to me and put your head on my shoulder. Maybe you were there for a full minute? At some point, my brain said, “You know, of course, that it won’t be long before her growth curve and your strength curve cross in opposite directions, and you won’t be able to do this.” Elena, were you thinking this too? I shushed my brain before it could break my heart. And marinated in that exquisite moment of togetherness.


To Elena, From Aby: Adventure

[This post was originally published in June of 2021]

Dear Elena,

When your parents began casting about for a baby to adopt, I fervently hoped they’d pick (or be given) a girl. I can’t even quite say why, but I just knew I wanted a granddaughter. 

Little did I know that not only would I get a granddaughter, but that that granddaughter would be the one and only E-Blast.

From the moment I got my hands on you, I wanted to take you cool and interesting places, and push boundaries. Some grandparents want to spoil their grandkids – that didn’t particularly interest me, but the idea of grabbing you and heading for the edge of the envelope – now that had appeal. Like, here’s us when you’re just 3-4 months old. Somehow I got permission to take you walkabout in Berkeley near your apartment (2130 Ashby Ave #5, if you’re keeping track). I wanted to cover your head for cold protection, but couldn’t find a hat for you. So I threw your mom’s extremely cute knitted cap on you and off we went to find coffee at the nearby deli (yes, I got multiple comments about how cute you looked).

Lee & Elena on their first adventure – this time to a deli in Berkeley

You couldn’t know it, but that was the beginning of our adventures together.

It became clear from the start that you were not a Barbie and Princess little girl. You were jeans and t-shirts from the jump, and the jeans instantly got holes in the knees. And there was nothing you weren’t up for. 

There was that weekend when you were two and a half that Lisa and I “kidnapped” you to Monterey (with your parents’ permission of course) for the first time. We took you down to the beach, and you just lost it – you ran around the beach, you flirted with the surf zone. You were transfixed by the whole thing. This is you digging the whole Breakwater scene. We even got video of it.

Elena’s first trip to Breakwater in Monterey

Shortly after this picture and video were taken, you completely misjudged the surf zone. You did a face plant in six inches of very cold Monterey water. I was right there and scooped you up. You looked a bit nonplussed, a little shocked, but not upset. Just “What was that all about?” We took you back to our blanket, stripped your clothes off you, and wrapped you up in a blanket between us. All three of us took a glorious 30-minute nap. Then we put dry clothes on you and went back to exploring the beach.

Once you learned to say “Monterey,” it was all over. “When are we going to Monterey?” became your mantra. As you’ve grown, you’ve become more independent and bold about exploring the beaches of Monterey, but your fascination with the place, and its critters, has never wavered.

This is you, in May of 2021 in Pacific Grove, communing with a hermit crab. You were taken with them from the start, and are still intrigued.

Elena communes with hermit crab in Pacific Grove, CA. May, 2021

Once we moved into our townhouse in San Leandro, our community, and its warren of “secret passages” became a wonderland of adventure an intrigue for you. We even recreated a Wild Kratts episode, documented here.

As you watch the video, note a couple of things: (1) when you fall, you briefly come over for comforting, but then you’re back out on the trail; and (2) at some point we come out of a pathway and you’re not sure where you are. “Which way is the house?” “It’s that way.” You immediately head in the opposite direction.

Let’s talk about your bike. From the moment you got your bike, you immediately sensed it as a means to freedom. Sadly, I don’t have the video any more, but your dad got a short video of you riding the bike (training wheels and all) down a side street in Berkeley, within days of you getting it at REI. You’re rolling down the sidewalk, and as you head into the distance, we hear a clear, “Yee-ha!” 

February 15, 2020, just as the covid curtain was coming down, Lisa, your uncle John, and I took you over to Washington Elementary School (yes, where you’d attend school the next year). You had suggested that maybe you were ready to lose the training wheels. So I got out a wrench, took them off, and we walked you and your bike over to the school. We put you in the grass first for when you fell over. You got on the bike, pedaled 10 feet, and fell over. Then you got on the bike, pedaled 25 feet, and came to a standing stop. We knew that it would be easier for you to pedal on the hard surface, so we took you over there, and gave you a push-off. That was all she wrote.

Elena’s first day without training wheels, February 2020

These days, we routinely go on long bike rides together, sometimes with a doughnut as ostensible purpose of the journey, sometimes just for the joy of being out on the bikes. One of your favorite rides is between your house and our house – about a mile and a half. It goes right through downtown San Leandro, which can be pretty harrowing, even though we’re still at the stage of riding down the sidewalk. We recently did such a ride, and Lisa asked me how it was, “For Elena? Great – piece of cake, lotta fun. For me? Constant hyper-vigilance for 20 minutes.” So be it. It’s a small price to pay for being out on the adventure trail with you. 

P.S. on 9/3/21… I just had to add two things. First: a few weeks ago, we were out on one of our rambles through the secret passages of our townhouse community. You were in full spy mode for whatever reason. You turned to me and held up your hands – “Aby, I have to teach you the hand sniggles.” Then your eyes twinkled, a look I’ve seen before. The look said, “That’s not quite right is it?” It took me a moment, but then my heart melted with joy. “Oh – signals. Hand signals.” “Yeah, signals!” Then you taught me the secret hand signals. But oh, the world would be a very much better place if they really were “hand sniggles.”

And I promised two Things. Here you are:

Thing 1 and Thing 2


To Elena, From Aby: The Vaccination Unicorn

Dear Elena,

I don’t know when you’ll first read this, so I don’t know how how much Covid-19 will figure into your consciousness. But as I write this, Covid continues to be ever-present in our minds. Particularly in the Bay Area, everybody is wearing masks, we’re socially distancing, and right about now (November of 2021) we’re all getting our vaccination boosters.

More importantly, kids from 5-11 years old just started getting their first vaccinations. And you got your pfirst Pfizer vaccine just a week ago. You hate shots (don’t we all?), but you were so brave about it, because you understood how important it is. Completely coincidentally, you ran into your friends Dani and Ella at Kaiser, were you were all getting your vaccinations. I have never seen three such courageous girls in all my life.

The next day, you came to our house, then you and Ana went to your swimming lesson. When you got back, there was something unexpected in the living room:

A three-foot unicorn, floating up at the ceiling. Near it, battery-powered tea candles were glowing. New age music was playing on the stereo. The “Angel of the Sea,” which has been in our house for over 20 years, was sitting near the base of the unicorn, with a tea candle in her lap. I came in from the back yard, and you said, “Um, Aby – what happened here?”

“You know, sweetie – I’m not sure. I was out back grilling the chicken, and when I came back in, it looked like this.”

You looked at me, looked back at the unicorn. Lisa was still in the garage.

“Ana! There’s something in here you need to see!”

Lisa walked in, and was appropriately shocked. “Whoa, what’s this? And what’s that at the unicorn’s base?”

You looked and saw that the unicorn was tethered down by a purple box, which you’d later discover was full of Halloween-sized candy. There was a scroll stuck in a loop in the ribbon. It was stained and wrinkled with age. You opened it and tried to read it.

“Too many words – Aby, you read it to me.”

We got on the sofa, and I carefully unrolled the scroll. Then in my most measured, dramatic voice, I read…

You listened in silence, motionless. Then you looked back up at the unicorn. You were quiet for a while after that, and we let you just process the whole thing.

Elena, you will turn seven on Christmas Day, and fantasy thinking is already abandoning you. I’m pretty sure you don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Faerie, but you cling to them a little because, honestly, the world is a much better place with a Tooth Faerie, isn’t it? Or maybe you pretend to believe in it just to soothe the grown-ups around you.

But you seemed to treat the Vaccination Unicorn as a bit special. When your mom showed up to pick you up, you immediately dragged her in to see the unicorn, and showed her the scroll. Mary, bless her, was every bit as awed by it as you were.

Then it was time for you to leave with her, and the miracle of November 2021 took place. Six months, a year ago, your first words would have been to ask if you could take the unicorn balloon home. But as you and Mary were leaving, I asked if you didn’t want to take it.

You paused, obviously conflicted. But your sense of mission, which burns bright in you, won the day.

“No… the unicorn needs to go visit some other kid.”

With a brief look back, you went out the door with your mom.