Double Digits

I’d known it was coming. I’d known there was no turning back, no way to stop the inevitable, nothing that could be done to slow the steady march of time.

Ella was going to turn ten whether I liked it or not.

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Brand new Eleanor squalling after being born. 

For Annie, turning eight was a big deal; for me, not so much. As I mentioned, some ages are heralded almost universally (or, at least here in the States) as important milestones, with eight not being among them… so while Annie regarded her birthday as a major stepping stone, I viewed it merely as yet another birthday. Don’t get me wrong – every time my girls age a year, it makes my heart beat a little faster because I am blindsided by how unbelievably quickly the time is flying by. But eight, itself? Nah.

Ten, on the other hand, is one of those ages that seems to be met with fanfare. Or, if not fanfare, at least recognition. “Oh wow – double digits!” “Good grief, an entire decade!” “Ten years really makes you stop and think about how old you are, doesn’t it?”

Because ten years is really something, right? We, as humans, measure things in ten year blocks. The decade of discovery! The decade of bell bottoms! The album of the decade! When you’re asked to imagine yourself in the future, you’re usually asked where you think you’ll be in “Five, ten, twenty years…?” Because ten is a big deal. Ten marks progress (or lack thereof). Ten marks difference. Ten is enough time for something to have changed, to have happened. Magazines look back ten years, do entire retrospectives and “Where Are They Now!”s.

Because… ten.

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When you’re born a week before Christmas, Santa hat photos are basically required.

Ten separates itself from its predecessors. The first double digit; you can no longer just squeeze it in – you need room for two. You can count by tens. You must purchase more than one candle for the cake.

Ten sounds older; it is treated as such. Whereas nine and seven and six were clearly young, with so much time and room to grow, ten begins something new. Ten is still a kid but with more responsibilities. What you could get away with at eight is hardly permissible now, because… ten. Ten is precariously close to thirteen, an age at which everything seems to change.

Ten carries with it an air of distinction. When you are ten – or eleven or twelve – you’ve entered into another realm, somewhere more mature and respected. You are one of the Big Kids now, allowed occasionally to sit at the adult table, able to maybe stay at home alone for a few minutes while dad takes the dog to the park and mom runs around the corner to drop off your sister.

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When your child turns ten, people identify, because ten holds meaning. “Can you believe you’re old enough to have a ten year old?” they’ll ask, even though you were more than old enough to have a nine year old a mere 24 hours ago. This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it’s one you’ve asked yourself, so you let it slide. Because no, you can’t believe it – not that you’re old enough, but that ten whole years have passed. Ten years being a parent. Ten years that simultaneously went by in the blink of an eye but also seem like eternity. You remember your ten years-and-one-day ago self so distinctly, you can almost physically feel her — but then again, she seems like a wholly different person.

Ten years – especially ten years as a parent – will do that to you.

And yet…

You remember, at eighteen, seeing the movie premiere of The Lion King with your best friend and her family, a special trip into Manhattan to one of the Broadway theaters, and eating afterward at a restaurant where service was slow and your best friend’s younger sister was becoming restless, which you laughed about a little – her impatience and all – until someone pointed out, “Well, after all, she is only ten.” And that’s stuck with you ever since, because yes – only ten.

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Special birthday treat: a lunch out with Mama at PF Chang’s. 

Ten sounds older – ten is older – but ten is really not so old at all. Ten can mean spending twenty minutes picking out the perfect outfit, but it also means playing dress-up with your sister. When you’re ten, you walk home from school by yourself but still cannot reach the plates on the second shelf in the cupboard. Ten is math problems that stump your parents but also asking for a dollhouse for Christmas. At ten, you want to go to the mall but still prefer to hold your mom or dad’s hand when you’re there. Ten means staying up later but, alas, does not put an end to tantrums or whining (pity, that).

I had been viewing Eleanor’s birthday with trepidation, anticipating that it would be different somehow – but I am pleased to have discovered that, although she turned ten three days ago, nothing else has changed. She still calls me “Mama.” She still wants to cuddle and sit on my lap. She still leaves her clean laundry in the basket for days on end and yelps when I try to brush her hair. She is still the exact same girl she was four days ago, except now she has to take another fraction of a second to write her age.

Oh – and she can wear dangly earrings. Ten comes with fashion privileges, y’all.

Although I still cannot quite believe that ten whole years – a decade – have passed since she was born, I am fully at peace with having a ten year-old in our house — or, more specifically, with having this ten year-old in our house. Ella is remarkable and delightful (and stubborn) and thoughtful and funny and wise; she is a tremendous friend, a fantastic sister, and a most marvelous daughter. She even makes me think that maybe having teenagers won’t be so bad. (I KNOW, I know.)

Happiest tenth birthday, Eleanor Elizabeth. Thanks for showing me that growing older isn’t something to be afraid of, but something to celebrate. If you could slow down the growth just a little, that would be awesome – but if not, that’s okay, too, so long as you continue to take me with you.

ellas brownies

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Do you believe in magic?

Every year, we visit the same Santa Claus. I don’t just mean the same place or the same general “Santa,” but actually the very same human being. We discovered him a good many years back when we went to get our Christmas tree at a local nursery and stumbled upon a Christmas Open House they were hosting.

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2009. OH, FOR CUTE.

The great part of this is that “our” Santa actually remembers the girls, which makes them feel pretty fantastic. (It doesn’t hurt that Santa hands out little goodie bags filled with candy, a coloring book, and these awesome glasses that “react” to bright lights and make it seem as though snowflakes or gingerbread men are dancing around the bulbs of your Christmas tree. Side note: wearing these glasses while driving is not advised.) The best part of this – or so I thought – is that Ella and Annie believe, to their core, that this is THE Santa Claus, so they feel like they’re in on a secret and basically the coolest, luckiest girls on the planet.

(They will tell you, point-blank, that the other Santas – the ones at the mall or on TV at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – are merely helpers, perhaps associated with The Big Guy himself, or perhaps just actors dressing the part. This doesn’t bother them or make Santa less real; they understand that one man can only be in one place at a time, duh, so there simply have to be understudies and stunt doubles.)

This belief began because “our” Santa has a real beard, unlike the Santas they’d met previously. It was cemented because they’ve seen photo evidence of Santa delivering presents to our house on Christmas Eve and (coincidentally) The Real Mr. Claus looks remarkably like the Santa at our local nursery. xmas day5I will fully accept responsibility, and declare myself guilty, for this deception because Annie and Ella’s belief in Santa – their desire for him to be real – is so strong and deep, I am willing to do almost anything to protect it; this is a ruse that I am absolutely willing to perpetuate. But as for the photo Santa resembling “our” Santa? MAMA GOT LUCKY THERE, FOLKS.
If you want to be creepy magical like me, check out this website.

When we arrived at the Christmas Open House on Saturday, our sole purpose was to see Santa; we’d already gotten our tree last week, so we only planned to stay for a few minutes, chat with St. Nick, grab the goodies, and leave. The moment we approached him at his bench, his face brightened and his smile beckoned them over.

“My gosh, how the two of you have grown!”

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He invited them to sit beside him and they made a little small talk, during which Santa mentioned that “your elf has been filling me in – he says that you’ve been pretty good this year!” Ella snuck a glance my way, one that showed me she was thinking what I was: How the heck does Santa know for sure that we have an elf (on the shelf)? We do, but wouldn’t that kind of blow his cover if we didn’t?

Naturally, Jolly Old St. Nicholas asked the girls what they’d like for Christmas. Annie listed her three items (the agreed upon appropriate number) and then Ella had her turn, telling him she’d like “an electronic writing thing” (actually a Boogie Board; Santa said he’d talk to the elves about it), a bracelet maker, and an American Girl doll. He laughed at that one, asking her, “Didn’t you get one of those last year?” She laughed back and agreed that she had – to which he replied, “But you can never have too many of those, can you? You need another to keep the first one company!” – and then she shot me The Look again.

Because, yes, she had received an American Girl doll last year, but it seemed unlikely that “Santa” would have remembered such a thing 365 days, and countless visitors, later. It seemed especially unlikely because Ella had never mentioned it to Santa at all; Nick and I had given her that doll last Christmas.

Soon enough, their visit was over, hugs were had, goodie bags were doled out, and the girls were by my side again, with both of them immediately saying, “How did Santa know we got American Girl dolls last year??” To which I replied, very honestly, “I have no idea.”

They were silent for a moment, thinking, when they both looked up at the same time and said, “Then he really MUST be the real Santa!”

Still dazed from the mystical Santa visit, I noticed that the nursery was selling well-priced poinsettias and Christmas cactuses (cacti?), which we give to the girls’ teachers each year, so I sent them over to look at the plants and select the ones they wanted. Meanwhile, I approached the cashiers for a large box in which to put our purchases. As I waited, The Man With All The Toys left his post and came up to me.

“I just wanted to thank you for bringing your daughters here every year. It means a lot to me.”

Oh, my goodness. Thank YOU so much for remembering them!

“How could I not? They’re beautiful and polite, and I love seeing how they grow!”

Thank you very much. Visiting you is one of our Christmas traditions each year. I know they won’t believe forever, but for now, they do, and you make magic for them each time we’re here. Thank you for the magic.

“Well, I certainly try. We all need a little magic.”

I still have no idea how he knew that we have an elf on the shelf, or that Ella and Annie received American Girl dolls last year. It could have been dumb luck – it probably was dumb luck – but it was pretty uncanny. Whatever the reason, my girls came away from our visit floating on air, certain that Santa Claus himself had just given them a hug and told them that they’d been good this year.

And hey… you just never know.

Christmas magic, my friends, indeed. That is the very, very best part.

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Eight

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With the birthday girl on her birthday night.

When I was in high school, I dated a boy whose littlest sister was quite a bit younger than we were. I remember sitting beside her in the springtime, watching her brother’s baseball (maybe? The details are fuzzy) game and chatting. Upon being asked what she would be doing during the upcoming summer break, she replied, “Waiting.”

Waiting for what?

“Waiting to be eight.”

If memory serves, there was a legendary summer camp she would be allowed to attend once she turned eight (I believe, at the time, she was only six, so this elusive camp experience was still quite a ways off). I chuckled at her response, but – obviously – it made an impression on me and has stuck with me all these twenty-plus years.

There are certain ages that are rites of passage, some established by American society (sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one), others by culture or religion (thirteen, fifteen), and still others because they mark milestones that we set for ourselves as somehow being meaningful (thirty, forty, the Beatles’ storied sixty-four). It had never occurred to me prior to talking with this little girl that eight was an age that was of any special significance.

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On Friday, Annie turned eight, and she viewed it with the same reverence. In our family, there are special privileges that you are awarded for turning eight  – permission to get one’s ears pierced, an invitation with Daddy on one of his business trips – but, even taking those into consideration, Annie had been very highly anticipating her birthday. Although it went beyond her usual annual birthday excitement, I didn’t really think anything of it, chalking it up to her great desire to have pierced ears.

She’d been talking up her birthday for weeks, highlighting it on the calendar and mentioning to me, every single morning, how long until the big day – a countdown of sorts. Because she seemed to be so looking forward to her birthday, so eager, I was taken aback when she looked deeply forlorn a few nights ago.

What’s up, kiddo? 

“Mommy… I just can’t believe I’m going to be eight.”

I laughed – actually laughed out loud – and said that I couldn’t believe it either, telling her that I felt like just yesterday that she’d been born, but I stopped my kidding as she began to cry.

“I just think, if I did the research, I’d discover that there are a lot of things that I can’t do once I’m eight.”

Huh? You did research on something?

“No! I’m saying that if I did research, I would find out that there are a lot of things that will be different when I’m eight.”

Like what?

And then it all came out…
There are games and toys that are recommended for age 7 and under. There are rides that are only for little kids, not big eight year-olds. When you play a game, the youngest goes first – and if she’s now eight, she’ll get the short end of the stick. She’s the first of her (girl) friends to turn eight, and now that she’s so old, she’s afraid that they’ll look at her differently.

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I briefly attempted to remind her of the good things about turning eight (“But you’ll be able to get your ears pierced!”) and to counter each point that she made (“Games for really little kids aren’t much fun anymore!” “Rides are height-based, not age-based!”) until I realized that it wasn’t really the details that were bothering her; it was the concept. Turning eight had become a milestone for her, and it had grown so huge in her mind, it suddenly became this Big Thing.

And, oh man, do I get that – becoming anxious about something that you’ve set up as Really Important in your mind, even if you’re also really excited about it. All of the energy that keeps you psyched up can accumulate and then implode on itself.

Plus also? Birthdays can be scary, folks.

So I hugged her – a lot – and listened to her fears (I even managed to keep a straight face; props to me) and reassured her that, no matter what, no matter how old she was, she would always be our baby, and we would always adore her (even if she never stops talking). Being eight is different, but it doesn’t have to be bad – it might turn out to be incredible.

It wasn’t a lie; she will always be my baby. And I do feel like it was just yesterday that she got stuck sunny side up and had to be yanked out via emergency c-section (after three hours of pushing with the epidural turned down to zero – good times!). I am completely serious when I say that I cannot believe that she is already eight – EIGHT freakin’ years, omg, are you KIDDING me?? – and that I am astonished by how quickly the time goes.
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Surely this was last year, right??

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If the next eight go by half as fast, I will hardly be able to catch my breath (I’ll also be crying in the fetal position in the corner because that will make her sixteen and she will be DRIVING, I CAN’T EVEN la la la I’m not listening). But, as much as I’ve talked to the fates about slowing things down for God’s sake, no one is listening… so I guess I’d better invest in a good seatbelt – metaphorically and literally – and try to enjoy the ride.

It’s not too hard, because with this kid along, it’s the funniest ride of all time.

Happy 8th Birthday, Annie! I hope it was worth the wait.

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This kid did not flinch – or even move – for the entire duration of the time she was in the chair.

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Checking to see if everything is good to go…

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All set!
(New earrings: tiaras, naturally.)

Right This Very Minute

I’m not feeling quite myself this year. I don’t know exactly why – anxiety? Hints of depression? Late Thanksgiving, meaning fewer days between then and Christmas, meaning OhMyGodThereIsNoTimeWTF stress? I don’t know, but it’s been a bit rough these past few weeks.

I know I’m not alone in this. The holidays bring a mix of emotions for so many people – the glorious highs of… traditions! Food! Time with family! Decorating the tree! Yes, let’s watch Elf for the third time this month! And the soul-crushing lows of… so much to do! Time with family! What do you mean you want to ask Santa for something different? Holy crap, did I move the damn elf tonight? I AM BEING MERRY AND BRIGHT. This time of year can be difficult and stressful and exhausting under really good circumstances, but when you struggle with anxiety and depression, it can be a whole other ballgame.

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When I was growing up, we used to watch the Rockefeller Center tree lighting on TV every year. Sometimes, in the living room, cozied up on the couch with a blanket. Other times, in the kitchen, standing beside the island or propped on one of the swivel bar chairs. I don’t remember many of the performances, but I do remember the grand ending: that magical moment when POP! all of the thousand gazillion lights illuminated at once, its own little Christmas miracle.

Because we lived just an hour outside of Manhattan, we used to see the tree quite often, too. It is absolutely as grand and marvelous in person as it is on television – more so, really – with the skating rink below (which is usually so crowded, you couldn’t pay me to set foot skate on it, but whatever) and – what used to be – quaint shops lining the plaza.

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Visiting the tree in 2011.

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Approximately ten days ago, a couple of friends and family members posted on Facebook that they had already completed their Christmas shopping. I didn’t really read their posts as bragging – more just jauntily and proudly stating a fact – but it still made me kind of want to refill their salt shakers with sugar.

Was I jealous? You bet your ass I was. Because, at that time, I had not purchased one single Christmas gift. NOT ONE SINGLE GIFT. Well, that’s not entirely true, because Nick and I picked up a few things for family members in Puerto Rico when we were there this summer, but I had not yet actively begun my real Christmas shopping. Alongside that jealousy, however, was a feeling of sheer panic: holy shit, I need to get shopping NOW but I have NO IDEA what to get everyone. There was exasperation. There was shame. There were tears. It was ugly.

Christmas is, really and truly, my most favorite time of the year. I’m “allowed” to listen to Christmas music on my birthday (November 22nd), but I sneak it earlier when I’m alone because it makes me so happy. The traditions my family has are among my most looked-forward-to moments of all of the days. I love December – the smells, the food; even that madness-inducing elf (who is rarely on a shelf) makes me smile rather than grouse. But the joy just hasn’t been there, which has only made me more upset.

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I was mid-sentence talking to Annie last week when I suddenly remembered something from my to-do book that I’d forgotten about. As I recalled the item, I gasped out loud and interrupted myself, saying, “Oh shoot – I forgot about that!” Understandably, Annie asked what the problem was. I explained that there wasn’t really a problem – I’d just forgotten to do something on my list, and I’d need to do it later. I then sighed and muttered that I had a helluva lot to do, so my list would never really end – that’s just the way it is.

Annie brightened. “Mom? Let’s say that all of the things you have to do weigh something.”

Okay.

“Let’s say that they weigh ten pounds. You’re carrying ten pounds.”

Okay, I can do that.

“Well now, guess what? You only have to carry five pounds!”

Ummm… And why is that?

“Because I’m going to take the other five pounds from you to help you out so you don’t have as much to do. Does that feel better?”

Sweet love, it feels incredible. That might be one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.

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Our advent calendars started a three days ago. This year, we’re doing RACKS – random acts of Christmas kindness – and I absolutely love that. I love that it makes me think of something beyond myself for a day, that I’m looking out into the world. I’m finding it really pretty amazing.

I’m also finding it hard to concentrate on what I want to be doing – RACKs, watching Christmas movies with the girls, reading Christmas books, just sitting back and enjoying the season – because of all the things I need to be doing. Most of the presents have been purchased by now (thank God for Amazon; setting foot into actual stores is making me break out in hives this year), but the ones that require some thought and attention – the homemade ones, the ones using photos and love and goodness, the ones that mean the most to me – are the ones that also require the most time and energy. I love doing it – I really do – but it is also exhausting and stressful.

Ditto for other Christmas traditions. That advent calendar? One of the best parts of the season, bar none, but it takes weeks of planning (and purchasing and researching and prepping) to pull it off successfully. I adore reading Christmas books with the girls and saw this cute idea online for wrapping 24 books and reading one each day. But then I found that I actually had to wrap the damn books, and now we need to find time to read them, which sometimes – even only three days in – feels more like a punishment than a reward.

How is it possible that the things I love the most are also the things that make me the most crazy?

Scratch that. I could say the same thing about basically every member of my family. Point taken.

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The girls asked that we set aside time tonight to listen to the latest installment in our Percy Jackson saga. I agreed, especially given that it was early enough to listen to Percy and read tonight’s Christmas book. It would be a good night, damn it all!

We’d just begun listening to our new chapter shortly after 8 p.m. when the phone rang; I had no idea who would be calling (we don’t get too many calls at that hour aside from telemarketers) and was quite surprised to see my mom’s number on the caller ID. This was a particularly strange time to call; what on earth could she want? Did I forget to do something? Had something bad happened?

Hi, Mom!

“Honey? I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Rockefeller Center tree lighting is taking place tonight…”

Oh – no, I didn’t know…

“…  and Mariah Carey is singing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’**.”

** Ella’s favorite Christmas song, ever

Oh, okay…

“I mean right now. She’s singing right now, so if you want to turn it on…”

Great! I will! It’s on NBC, right?

“Yes, NBC…”

Thanks, Mom – turning it on now!

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I paused the CD, fumbled with the remote and found our NBC affiliate (ironically, one of only two channels that I’ve actually memorized because virtually everything I watch is DVR’d), and we listened to Mariah. As the broadcast went to commercial, it informed us of who the upcoming singers and performers would be, including some names Ella and Annie recognized immediately – Idina Menzel (“That’s ELSA!!”), Pentatonix, Sara Bareilles (“She sings ‘Brave’!”), Lady Gaga, the Rockettes.

“Mom! Can we please watch the rest?? I don’t care if we skip Percy – we need to see this!”

And I realized, this wasn’t part of the plan… but yes indeed, we do need to see this. This is exactly what we need – a little Christmas, right this very minute. We scrambled upstairs and climbed into my bed to watch the TV in there and the girls were absolutely entranced, listening to every artist – even the ones with whom they were completely unfamiliar – with rapt attention.

Pentatonix had just begun to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” when the phone rang again (“Who the $*#& is it now??”) and I heard my dad’s voice on the other end.

“Just wanted to be sure that you’re watching the Rockefeller Center…”

Yes! We are! We’re watching right now – thank you!

“Okay, good. Talk to you later.”

And with that, he hung up, having said all he needed to say.

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During the commercial breaks, the girls and I found the time to read tonight’s book (Light of Christmas, about a boy who’s chosen to light his village’s Christmas tree – how d’you like THEM apples??). We snuggled closer after I expressed my surprise that the NBC Today Show hosts actually mentioned the protests that were occurring because of the failure to indict the (white) NYPD police officer who killed (black) Eric Garner after he put him in an (illegal) chokehold.

“But that’s not fair, Mama! How can that happen? Why are some people still afraid of black people? Why are black people still treated differently?”

Ah, my dears, the questions for the ages… I am so, so glad that you are asking, and we must continue this discussion… but for tonight I hope you’ll forgive me if we agree that it is not okay, agree that we must keep talking and make change, and then agree to take a deep breath and try to enjoy this tree lighting. 

“Okay, Mom. Let’s do that.”

And so we did, turning off the lights in the bedroom moments before the Rockefeller tree burst into dazzling color, twinkling everywhere – magic, right before our eyes.

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I don’t know if it was fate, God, Santa Claus, or just good luck that guided my parents tonight, but the fact that both of them called to tell me about the tree lighting was really something spectacular. I cannot remember the last time that happened.

Whatever the reason, I’m damned glad they did, because tonight – for the first time in a long while – I feel like myself again. I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep (and, at 10:30 p.m., that’s saying something), but, because of those stolen magic moments with Annie and Ella, I somehow feel like it will all be okay.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to accomplish a few things before my alarm goes off to remind me to put the elf in a new place. I’m thinking maybe atop the new little Christmas tree that my mom sent the girls for Thanksgiving – you know, full circle and all that.

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My view tonight – Ella on my left, Annie on my right, and Pentatonix on the TV. It was delightful.