A Happy Anniversary Poem for My Parents

I'd like to take this opportunity, 
Even though it's very late,
To wish my parents a Happy Anniversary, 
And let them know I think they're great. 

I'm so very glad, 
My dad didn't marry fiancé number one (or two).
Because where would I be without my mother, 
Had she not been the one to say, "I Do."

She taught me to read, 
When I was just a girl of three.
She came to school and rescued me,
That time I couldn't wait to pee. 

She taught me about prayer,
On a sailboat out in the middle of Bear Lake.
And that Heavenly Father listens to us,
Even when we make mistakes.

She taught me how to dehydrate bananas,
And make peanut butter balls.
She hosted a rotating preschool group;
We played with paper dolls.

She taught me how to plant a garden,
And how to make those peas grow straight.
She taught me how to transplant flowers,
All before the age of eight. 

She taught me how to work hard, 
First with newspapers and then mowing lawns.
I didn't always appreciate it, 
Especially on cold mornings when I was up before dawn. 

She taught me to use a calendar, 
And to fill it up with fun.
Swimming at CiCo Pool, bike rides, and trips to Abilene,
Before the summer was done.  

She taught me how to use coupons,
And to buy things when they were on sale.
Like the ice cream cone tokens from Vista,
And all the good deals we got through the mail. 

She taught me to serve others,
In a hospital in an unfamiliar town.
And that sometimes you just need to be a shoulder to cry on,
For someone when they are down. 

She taught me proper grammar,
That I should answer the phone, "This is she."
My mother, the English teacher,
Made it easy for me to do well on the ACT. 

She encouraged me to go to BYU,
But I wasn't the least bit interested.
She even tried to bribe me,
But I firmly resisted.

She taught me to be honest,
No matter what, no matter where.
Don't drive my parents' car to Mexico,
And think that they won't care.

And what about my Dad?
I hardly know where to start.
He truly has made parenting, 
Into a form of art. 

We grew up with Family Court, 
Where he always asked "What happened and what should be done?"
Punishments included writing essays and being immobilized,
Trust me, neither was very fun. 

He taught me to Always Be Careful,
And that guns are not toys. 
He signed me up for Judo classes,
Right along with the boys. 

Get control of your time and your life, 
But don't forget to dream. 
Learn how to change a tire, 
And keep your windshield clean.

He thinks I'm a lot smarter,
Than I actually am.
Probably because I am more competitive,
Than my older brother, Sam. 

There was that year, when I was twelve, 
He gave me a compass and a pencil.
And challenged me to write a proof to trisect an angle.
(Even though it's actually impossible.)

He encouraged me to take pictures,
To write in my journal too.
He taught me to always carry a pen,
And repeated, "It's time to wear a watch". . . until he was blue. 

My dad is an interesting man,
With lots of amazing skills.
He custom-builds apple boxes,
And knows all about pills. 

His trunk is full of all sorts of things:
Fifteen pairs of scissors, duct tape in seven different colors, and at least a dozen maps. 
He always has exactly what you need, 
And he is the champion of twenty-minute naps. 

He might offer to give you a sixty-second lesson,
On how to use pepper spray.
Or maybe he will show you his sandpaper collection,
Or teach you about gluten, pasteurization, or whey.

He's extremely intelligent,
And practical too.
He taught me how to catch termites,
And showed me the best types of glue.

He taught me about the "danger zone",
And how to put on snow chains,
So many uses for 3x5 cards,
Like remembering his nieces' names. 

I am thankful for my parents;
Teaching truly is their specialty.
I'm thankful for their example, their words of wisdom,
And I wish them a HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!


Merry Christmas From the Ballards

I almost didn't send out Christmas cards this year. But then I realized (mid-December) that I had a lot of people to thank. 

This year, we initiated an incredible fundraiser, embarked on our big trip to South Africa, and planned a beautiful wedding (in just three weeks). 

We couldn't have done it alone. We have great friends and family. Thank you for offering your love and support to our family this year. 

P.S. Things were a little rushed. I'm sorry if we missed sending you a card!


Best Gift Guide for Kids: UPDATED (aka The Toys I Didn't Take to the D.I.)

Four years ago, I wrote a post called Best Gift Guide for Kids. It started out like this:

I have had a few people ask me for suggestions on what to get their kids for Christmas, so I decided to post some ideas for everyone to see. But first, let me clarify: There are plenty of lists out there of gifts for kids that are really fun to give. . . But this is not one of those lists.

I don't like clutter, and I don't like having a lot of toys that can clutter up my house. I am very picky with what toys I let my kids have, so I make sure the toys they get will get a lot of usage. This guide features toys that get played with the most at our house.

Most of these unisex toys are not super thoughtful, unique toys, but more along the lines of what I think the basics are. So if your kid is missing something off of this must-have list, get shopping ASAP. I broke them into categories, but the reason many of these toys made my list is because they can be used for so many different age categories. Adam (2) and Rachel (6) both like to ride around on their Plasma Cars, and sometimes I even ride them too.

We are currently working on a complete house purge. Yesterday, we took three Rubbermaid totes full of donations to the D.I. We filled three more today. So I figured it would be good to follow up on those gifts, and let you know what toys I couldn't bear to get rid of.

Ages 0-2:

1. Oball ($5 Bed Bath & Beyond, Target): Amazingly, little infants can actually grasp this ball. Target just started selling a version with a rattle.
2. Playskool Busy Gears ($15 Wal-mart, Target): This has been the most-used toy at our house. Adam still plays with it every single day.
3. Little Tikes Toddler Swing ($20 ToysRUs, Amazon): Don't have room for a swing set outside? No worries. Screw two eye bolts into the ceiling of your garage, basement, or even in a doorway and. . . Voila!
4. LeapFrog Fridge Phonics ($15 Amazon, Target): The alphabet can get a little annoying after you've heard it for the hundredth time, but the repetition helps them learn.
5. Rocking Horse ($40 Walmart): Boys and girls alike need a rocking horse. My girls used to spend hours, styling the poor horse's hair with all of their clips and bows. Adam still feels the need to jump on it for a ride every night before he goes to bed.

I should modify the ages for the toys in this category to say Ages 0-4.

1. Oball: We have at least three of these around the house, and I still love them. I generally find them with strings tied around them, which actually drives me crazy, but at least they are getting played with. You can find them at all sorts of stores these days.
2. Playskool Busy Gears: We are missing a couple of the little plastic gears, but we are keeping this toy forever because it is still a favorite for every baby/toddler who comes over to our house.
3. Little Tikes Toddler Swing: We passed our swing onto a friend earlier this year because Mykaeleigh's shoes were always getting stuck when we tried to pull her out of it. But you know. . . ten years of use isn't bad.
4. LeapFrog Fridge Phonics: We actually have a whole basket full of these magnets. We have the English version, the Spanish version, and even the Farm Magnetic Animal Set. I just looked them up on Amazon to link them and it looks like they are rare and hard to find. . . glad I didn't get rid of them.
5. Rocking Horse: We still have our beloved rocking horse. Rachel asked me if I would keep it until she has kids of her own.

Ages 3-5:

1. Razor Scooter ($20-30 ShopKo, Target...watch for sales) : Every kid needs one of these. The handlebars slide down low enough for a two-year old. And don't bother with the three-wheeled version for younger kids. They will figure out how to balance on two wheels after a little practice.
2. LeapFrog Tag Reading System ($40-50 LeapFrog, Amazon, Costco): I used to worry that we would rip the pages, but even with my destructible boy, we have only ruined one book. (He threw it in the bathtub.)
3. Plasma Car ($40-60 Overstock, Amazon, Target): Forget a tricycle or any other ride on toy. This one is so much more fun.
4. Heelys ($30-50 Amazon, Zappos): I actually resisted getting Heelys until I was finally forced into it. And now I love them. They just came out with this trimmer, less clunky model.
5. Marble Run: ($25-50 ToysRUs, Amazon): There are dozens of versions of this classic toy on the market today. My kids love going to Grandma's house to play with the same one I played with as a child.

This category should be modified to say Ages 3-10.

1. Razor Scooter: We still love Razor Scooters. In fact, Lucy and Adam just got new ones last month. I recommend buying colored or patterned scooters to make them easy to identify from your neighbors'. And try not to back over them with your car.
2. LeapFrog Tag Reading System: We still have our Tag Reader; we actually have two. And probably fifteen books. I've thought about getting rid of them, but they are nice to take on long drives in the car. And even though Adam can read, he still likes playing with them and loves listening to all of the sound effects that are connected to the pictures.
3. Plasma Car: Funny that this is the only toy from this category that we don't have anymore. Because it's probably my favorite. My brother, Sam, loved them so much, that he made his own Swivel Car Rolling Ride On Toy, available in all sorts of fun colors through amazon. We had three of these but gave them away to friends a while back because it was Adam's preferred mode of transportation and he was refusing to learn how to ride a bike. And Mykaeleigh ruined a whole lot of really cute shoes by dragging her feet as brakes. My kids have been asking about them, so I think we might have to get some Swivel Cars again this summer. . .
4. Heelys: Most stores started banning Heelys a couple of years ago, but they aren't very common anymore, so you can get away with using them again. (Best place in the world for Heelys? Las Vegas.) Lucy ended up with a hand-me-down pair from her cousin, Gracie, and Rachel's feet haven't grown much in the last four years, so she can still miraculously fit into the pair she got for her birthday in 2010. (That would be why Rachel has 30 billion pairs of shoes.) Adam never really mastered Heelys, but sometimes the kids push the table and chair up against the kitchen wall and ride around on the kitchen floor. I'm not sure I would pay full price for these anymore, but you should be able to find some bargains on eBay.
5. Marble Run: The kids wanted to get rid of our Castle Marbleworks that Rachel received for her first birthday.) But I'm not ready to get rid of it. I'll probably keep it forever. I considered buying this Marbleworks Ultra Deluxe Set for Adam, but decided it was a little too pricey. The kids still love to play with Marbleworks at my parents' house.

Ages 6-8:

1. Melissa & Doug Travel Hangman ($13 Little Cherry Blossoms, Amazon): My kids bring this with us everywhere we go. Super cute and helps them learn how to spell.
2. Apple Ipod Shuffle ($39 Apple refurbished): I am a big fan of Ipods, and these shuffles are perfect for kids. Need more convincing? Click here.
3. CamelBak Better Bottle ($12 REI): Doesn't look like a sippy cup, but provides the same function. The perfect present for children and adults too!
4. Camera (free): No need to buy a new one, just give them your old 2-5 mp digital camera and buy yourself an upgrade 
5. Hyper Dash ($13 Target, Amazon): Suitable for kids as soon as they know their colors, this award-winning game will help keep your kids active. Perfect for rainy (and snowy) days. Challenges speed, skill, and memory

The ages for this category could be more like 4-54.

1. Melissa & Doug Travel Hangman: This isn't played with as much as it used to be. . . mostly because it's been replaced by much smaller, electronic toys. And because Adam has a hard time following the rules of Hangman. But I like it precisely because it isn't electronic.
2. Apple iPod Shuffle: Even though Rachel has an iPhone, she still uses her Shuffle because she can take it running without worrying about it breaking. Still a winner.
3. CamelBak Better Bottle. I ordered new CamelBak water bottles for Christmas this year. We use ours all of the time and replace them every two or three years.
4. Camera: Rachel used that old camera of mine for years, but between her iPhone and my old Leica camera, it mostly just sits on the shelf. Maybe it's time to pass it onto Adam?
5. Hyper Dash: We still have Hyper Dash and the kids use when they are making obstacle courses. I love games that promote physical activity, so it's a keeper.

Some of my other favorite toys that should be added?

My Little Pony: My Little Ponies are one of my all-time favorite toys. Make sure you get a full-size pony with brushable hair. You don't need any of the accessories, other than a little plastic brush. This is the perfect toy to stash in your baby bag or purse. They provided endless hours of entertainment for my girls and are also great for learning how to braid hair.

Spy Gear: Adam has received different pieces of Spy Gear for the last two Christmases. Rachel and Lucy wanted to pick out some more this year. But he already has the binoculars, walkie talkies, spy car, motion detector, spy watch, spy listener, laser pen, and probably some more that I am forgetting, so I think we're good. When Adam has friends come over, they frequently play spies (which I love because it's relatively quiet). His favorites are the spy watch and the motion detector. You can also buy these at Kohl's.

Mr. Potato Head: It's a classic for a reason. We have three of these, and I love finding my kids playing with them. Bonus: they also provide the easiest, simplest way to decorate your pumpkins.

Hot Wheels 4 Lane Raceway: I think I wrote about this before. (Here it is. . . back in 2010). I used to think about how fun it would be to have a boy and buy him a train set. Well, Adam got a train set, but he wasn't impressed. And then he got this racetrack from Grandma Gloria, and it was magical. You would clearly have to but it from somewhere other than amazon because they have it priced at $200. (I understand the concept of supply and demand, but seriously. . . what?!?) We've tried other tracks, including the ones that attach to the walls. The reason why I love this one is because Adam can set it up (and put it away) by himself. And it encourages group play.

Wheelbarrow/Yard Tools: 2010 was also the year Adam got his John Deere metal wheelbarrow. It's looking like they don't sell the John Deere ones anymore, but the Radio Flyer brand should be great too. Adam take his outside chores a lot more seriously with his own tools. And I love when he uses his wheelbarrow to help unload groceries from the car.

Rocking Chair: Gloria gave this chair to Mykaeleigh as a combined birthday and Christmas present last year. (I think the price went up a little?) But anyhow, she loved it so much and we almost bought Adam his own so there wouldn't be any quarreling over who got to sit in the special chair. High quality and will last forever.

Pottery Barn Kids Soft Baby Dolls: I'm trying to think what year it was that I bought these for Rachel and Lucy. I couldn't believe that I was spending so much money on a doll (something like $30). Thanks to DownEast and eBay, our collection has really grown over the years. (Our favorite was definitely the doll stroller similar to this one. The girls loved to push Adam and Mykaeleigh in the stroller across our kitchen floor, but one too many crashes left it unrepairable.) Note: I don't think I especially like PBK's new doll collection. Maybe I'm just not used to them, but the eyes look odd.

Lego Table: Back when my brother, Paul, worked at the D.I. he scored us a Lego Table for four or five bucks. Since then, my kids have had fun building with the Duplo-sized Lego bricks. This year, we are finally entering into the world of "real" Legos. I might be able to part with this toy once we make the transition.

Charlie & Lola DVDs: So I was kind of sad that I discovered Charlie & Lola right as Rachel and Lucy were outgrowing them. I was thrilled that Mykaeleigh loved them as much as me. We also love the Charlie & Lola pop up book, I Will Never Not EVER Eat a Tomato. And it looks like you can buy yourself a new copy on amazon for a mere nine thousand dollars. Seriously. . . what is up with amazon? Forget keeping any of these things, I need to sell them on amazon!

REI Kindercone Sleeping Bag: Not a toy, but I thought I should include this one too, since I was admiring one as I put it away this morning. My mom gave these sleeping bags as Christmas gifts to the grandkids a few years ago, and they have been one of our favorite gifts ever.

Melissa & Doug Wooden Food Sets: Okay, so we have a lot of these. The fruit set, the vegetable set, the pantry products, the ice cream set, the cookie set, and a couple of food sets they don't make anymore. My sister painted a really cute mural on the wall to go along with our play kitchen, so I will probably never get rid of them. Yes, these are a lot more fun if you have a pretend kitchen. I organized everything today, and amazingly, the only thing we're missing is some french fries. These wooden food sets have provided countless hours of fun as the kids have played "restaurant".

Add in some dress up clothes, a cabinet full of board games, and Adam's toy box full of "guys", and that's pretty much every toy we own. I get that I'm probably a couple weeks late posting this, but if you are still shopping for Christmas gifts, you should be able to find most of these products at your local stores. 


Thanksgiving Trip Day 5: Back to the Visitors' Center and the Drive Home

We spent Saturday back at the Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors' Center. 

Well, first I took some picture of Richard and Gloria. The lighting wasn't great, but I did my best. 

I really love this Book of Mormon display:

It is so very interesting to see the different sizes and thicknesses of the books in each of the different languages. 

Rachel is holding one in Africaans and one in Xhosa:

I should probably order some. . . 

Did you know that the original Christus was completed in 1838 and is located in the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, Denmark? The Christus was not well known outside of Denmark until 1896, when an American textbook writer wrote that the statue of the resurrected Christ was "considered the most perfect statue of Christ in the world."

Images and replicas of the statue were adopted by the leaders of the LDS Church to emphasize the centrality of Jesus Christ to their beliefs and teachings. 

Replicas are now located in Temple Square and at visitors' centers in New Zealand, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Mesa, Mexico City, Nauvoo, Illinois, Oakland, California, Palmyra, New York, Portland, St. George, Washington, D.C. the Hill Cumorah, and in Independence, Missouri. 

A full-size replica of the Christus is also located in The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. 

A bronze version can be seen at the Oakwood Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas in a family plot as a memorial. 

In 2009, a six-foot Christus replica was built out of 30,000 white Lego pieces by parishioners of a Swedish Protestant church in Vasteras. 

(All of that information is from Wikipedia.)

Gloria told us that a young man had proposed to his girlfriend at the foot of the Christus a few days earlier. . . it turned into a bit of a production and there was a large group of Scouts who ended up watching the whole thing. I'm sure that was interesting. 

The reason we went back to the Visitors' Center was so we could watch Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration

The hour-long video can be seen on YouTube through the Mormon Channel. And since Monday, December 23, is the 208th anniversary of Joseph Smith Jr.'s birth, watching the video production could make for a great Family Home Evening activity.

Adam lost interest about halfway through the movie. He turned to me and asked me if I would pull out his tooth. So I did. And then it bled. And then he lost the tooth. So then we searched for it on the ground. . . Maybe we should re-watch the movie for FHE.

Goodbye, Mesa Arizona Temple: 

And then goodbye, Arizona. 

Twelve hours later, we were home. To the cleanest house ever. 

I have good friends. Or as Kaylynn Nunn would say, they are quality friends. 


Mykaeleigh is FIVE

So strange not to have this cute girl with us on her birthday: 

But I think it's pretty safe to say that she was excited that we surprised her at preschool: 

She gave Adam a hug a great hug, just like this one with Lucy, but I wasn't fast enough to pull out my phone:

I wish I would have taken my camera with me, but these are better than nothing:

We sure miss Mykaeleigh. It is hard, trying to figure out what my role is right now.

I just hope she knows how much we love her.

We have enjoyed some great birthdays with her over the past four years:

4th Birthday party at the hotel 

3rd Birthday in California

2nd Birthday party at McDonald's

1st Birthday party at the Treehouse Museum

And I am also very thankful that we were able to see her at the hospital the day she was born

Only time will tell what the future holds. . . in the meantime, I am thankful for her good school. I am thankful for her smile. And I am thankful for her apparent resiliency. 

. . . . . . 

P.S. Happy Birthday to my beautiful niece, Gracie. As of today, she is a teenager!!!


Thanksgiving Trip Day 4: Black Friday

Before the long drive to Arizona in the truck, we had planned to spend at least one day on our trip in Mexico. You can drive from Mesa to the border at Nogales in less than three hours. And then it's about three more hours to get from Nogales into Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora. Steve wanted to go to Hermosillo, but Nogales would have been enough of an adventure for the kids, who have never been to Mexico. (Read this awesome article on Nogales. . . maybe we will start going there for dentist appointments.)

I told Rachel and Lucy that I was going to invite the Garzas to go with us. "But Chloe won't want to miss shopping on Black Friday," they confidently told me. (It took some brief persuading, but my girls ultimately agreed that Mexico was better than Black Friday shopping.) As it turned out, the Garzas ran out of time to get passports for their kids and decided to wait till next time for a Mexico trip. And then, it turned out that we didn't end up going either. But I love how Rachel and Lucy thought they had Chloe, who just turned sixteen, all figured out. Rachel and Lucy are big Chloe fans. And rightfully so, she is pretty fabulous. There was that one day Rachel was using my phone to look at Instagram. "You have more friends than I do so yours is more interesting to look at. . ." And then there was a dramatic, "Whaaaaaat?!? You don't follow Chloe Garza?" (Now I do.) 

Rachel fully assumed that Chloe would have elaborate Black Friday shopping plans, complete with sophisticated maps of which stores to hit and extensive lists of deals to buy. Imagine their surprise when they found out that Chloe had never been Black Friday shopping. Never. We offered to take her, but then she ended up getting a babysitting job and decided to earn money, rather than go spend it. Crazy girl. 

Anyhow, it all worked out because Grandma Gloria went with us. (Before our trip, Rachel and Lucy had asked if Grandma would go shopping with us, and I really wasn't sure how kosher things like that were. . . It appears that senior missionaries can actually do whatever they want!)

We are fairly casual Black Friday shoppers. It's less about being an aggressive shopper and more about the tradition of going shopping and snagging a few deals. We left around 9 or 10:00 am and went to Old Navy (where the whole store was fifty percent off), Sports Authority (buy one basketball, get one free), and Kohl's (where Lucy found some great shoes, but the line was too long, so we gave up). Overall, I felt like the stores were a lot less crazy than they are in Utah. Gloria thinks that there are just so many more stores there that it gives the deal chasers more options of where to go. I was tired out, but we ended up going to the mall so we could go to Bath & Body Works. And then Grandma Gloria bought the girls these cute shirts from Aeropostale:  

After shopping, we went back to Richard and Gloria's for lunch. Leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving. Less pressure and more relaxed. . .  sometimes they end up tasting better than the real deal on Thanksgiving.

A few hours later, we met up with Slade and Carissa Flitton at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles:

Slade and Carissa live in the Pinetop-Lakeside area, but were in town for Thanksgiving with Slade's cousins. And they told us we could not miss out on Lo-Lo's. 

"This ain't your momma's chicken". . . and. . . they serve Kool-Aid!!!

Of course, I had to order some "drank": 

Kool-Aid at Lo-Lo's is ordered by the color, not the flavor. Our server didn't actually know what flavors they were, just that I could choose Red, Blue, or Purple. 

It actually seemed like most of the people in the restaurant were drinking Kool-Aid. Who would have thought?? 

And by the way, the Kool-Aid was so strong, that we did some mixing with the waters on our table and turned my super potent quart of Kool-Aid into about three quarts of regular strength Kool-Aid.

But the real reason we went to Lo-Lo's was for the chicken and waffles:

And the mac & cheese. . . and the grits (which are really good when eaten with fried eggs):

The boys were all relatively quiet because they had so much food to eat:

We had a great time. . . we miss seeing those guys more frequently. 

Later that night, we drove to Phoenix to go see the lights at the zoo. Steve and I actually drove to Phoenix. . . we were following the directions on my phone and ended up all the way downtown before I realized that I had looked up "Phoenix", instead of "Phoenix Zoo". 

It was dark, so I didn't take very many pictures, but it was absolutely shocking to see how many people were at Zoolights. Hoards and hoards of people at fourteen bucks a person. Not all of the animals were viewable at night, but the kids still had a good time. Well. . . good enough. 

Here are the two obligatory group pictures I got of the kids: 

I wish I had a good picture of Austin and Adam with the overpriced lightsaber swords that they bought before we left the zoo. Because it was pretty much the best part of Adam's trip. Heidi and I talked about what a different life those little boys have than our older kids. But the more I think about it, my girls were plenty spoiled. . . just in different ways. Rachel and Lucy had private swim lessons, took gymnastics, have played kickball, softball, basketball, and get to run in all sorts of fun races. Adam hasn't gotten to do anything like that because I'm too concerned about overbooking our family's schedule . . . (And it turns out those activities that the girls participate in cost way more than Adam's ten-dollar sword.) 

There are definitely benefits and drawbacks to each birth order position. . . but just as Angela reminded us at Learning Circle last night, "You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit." I probably need to get that framed. . .