Saturday, July 14, 2007

Day Five - A Real WINNER

This is just short and sweet, because I want to head back downstairs to the party, but I wanted to let you all know that...

ADIOS TO MY OLD LIFE, by Caridad Ferrer, won the RITA Award for Best Contemporary Single Title!

There were many other winners, for many other awards, of course. They are all special and brilliant and wonderful. I will announce them all later. I'm not trying to slight any of them, or make it seem like this win is any better than any of the others.

It is, however, MUCH more personal. My oldest daughter, Gret, LOVES this book. She's passed it around to her friends, and they LOVE this book. Beyond it being a fave of most every teenaged girl I know though, it's also one of my faves.

As many of you moms may know, it's hard to find a book that you feel comfortable handing to your young adult. Gret is 15, and while that means she is no longer a baby, she's not a grown-up either. I handed this book to her with a smile.

THANK YOU Caridad, for writing a book that I could hand to one of my favorite chicks. She's waited a while to read something by a Cherry.


Day Five - We have a tv in our room?

OR - There is so much to do here I've almost forgotten about the rest of the world!

First of all, I have to send out some cyber love to one of my very best friends (and a TERRIFIC review and critique partner) - Charity. Charity and I decided to go to Dallas together for Nats last year, when we were both suffering terribly from "Not-Lanta Envy". We planned and pinched pennies and registered the very first day (or at least one of us did :) ). We talked and chatted about it for months. We were both SO excited. Then, as many of you know, Charity's town, Coffeyville, Kansas, ended up plastered all over CNN due to disasterous flooding. This threw a MAJOR kink in the plans for us to attend Nats together. Char called me in tears to tell me she couldn't make it, afraid that I would be angry. Well, one of my best friends couldn't even drive out of town, as it was literally under a river. How could I be angry? However, I was sad, because I knew I couldn't afford it on my own. But Robin and Kathy agreed to let me share a room with them, and I got to Live The Dream. But it has been very bittersweet for me, as I don't have my other half (really- my better half) here with me to share it. With every new person I meet and every experience I have, part of me is over the moon with giddiness, but part of me cries very silent tears that my friend can't share it. She's home cleaning up from the ravages of Mother Nature, and coming to Nats is really low on the list of her personal priorities this week. She's just such an amazing person though, and I know how much she really wanted to be here, so I couldn't help but do something to brighten her day. Guess what I did?

I hung out with Kristan Higgins. Charity LOVES Kristan, as I may have already mentioned. She picked FOOLS RUSH IN as the Top Pick of 2006 for our review blog. Charity's only request was that I find and meet Kristan, and do a FanGirlSquee, just for her. I have obliged many times over. ;) On my way to Kristan's room, I made a frantic phone call to Charity, leaving a "CALL ME RIGHT THIS MINUTE" message. Then I waited. When the phone rang, I handed it to Kristan and asked her to answer it. She did. The conversation went something like:
Char- Dee?
KH - No, this is Kristan.
Char - Kristan who?
KH- Kristan Higgins.
KH - (mouthing to me) ouch!

It was beautiful. though Charity can't be here in person, she is here in spirit. I miss ya babe. Gt your bags packed for SanFran, ok?

In other news - some of you have asked why I'm not posting many pictures. Gret has my camera at camp. She's not allowed to have her cell phone there, but I can have mine here. So the reasoning was that I would use my camera on my phone, and still be able to take pictures. The reality is that I don't have a wall charger for my phone, and short of renting a cab to drive me around while charging the phone on the car charger, my phone would not have made it through the week with all of the pictures I wanted to take. So I'm relying on others to take and post the pics. Thanks, CherryRed, for your post about Blogging Nationals, and to the Fabulous Jude, for compiling a list of all of those blogs, and all of you other people that are taking and posting the pics because I can't!

I've learned that I'm not a Conference Purist. By that I mean that while the workshops are amazing, I have stood firm on my promise to myself to go with the wind. Basically, I still have my list(s) of all the workshops that I "needed", but I'm using it only as a guide, when I have nothing else to do. HAH!

Nothing else to do? Like the Publishing events where they GIVE you tons of free books? Or the people that just wander around, waiting to meet new people? Or bumping into someone in the hall that you saw in the coffee shop last night, and stopping to talk for 20 minutes? Or all of the people, these amazing women (and yes, even a few men!) that are so giving, so willing, so helpful, and so excited for you to reach the next level of success?

I only realized this morning that there was a tv in my room. I knew there was, on a logical level, but have had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to turn the blasted thing on. PTL! My kids would be shocked and appalled, of course, as the tb here has cable, something they do not have at home. I'm a mean mom. What can I say?

I'm heading off to my very last workshop now - Say Goodbye to the Slush Pile. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? I know that there will be lots of great information presented, and I can't wait. But I'm telling you now, if I meet an interesting person on the way down the hall, forget about me going to the workshop. I'm getting the cd's, and as you already know - I'm not about to miss any opportunities.

More tonight, after the Golden Hearts and RITAs are announced.

I'll Keep You Posted!

PS- Real quick GOOD LUCK to Caridad/Barb Ferrer, who is up for TWO RITA AWARDS tonight. You can see the winners announced real time here. Or just check back with me later for a complete list.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Day Four - Where the heck am I going to put all these books?!?

I am not going to allow myself to get ANY more books. And I'm NOT putting all of the titles and authors over on the book review blog either. There are just WAY too many to type. My fingers would probably fall off. I will let you know that some of YOU have books here in this picture. Not all of you, because some of the authors just signed the books to me before I could even ask them to sign them for someone else. That's ok though. I can split them with the other Dee. Because, quite frankly, my husband is going to have a TOTAL FIT when he sees how many books I've gotten here.

Just a sampling of the authors:
Lori Avocato
Mary Castillo
Kayla Perrin
Caridad Pineiro
Ken Casper
Gena Showalter
Mary Janice Davidson
Erin McCarthy

and too many more to count!

You think it will matter to him that all but a few of them were totally FREE?

I'll keep you posted!

Day Four - Lunch Break... and WOW do I need it!

Holy Cow! I went to two workshops this morning. Both were great, they really were. But here's the thing... I'm not sure how many more I'm going to attend. Have you gone through this at Nationals?

I came here with a very specific goal in mind: to learn ways to get ready for my pitch in New Jersey. I also gave myself "permission" to miss some workshops if other opportunities presented themselves. You've probably already noticed, or may even already KNOW, that there are no lack of "other opportunities" at an RWA National Conference.

While the workshops are WONDERFUL, they are a tad bit scary as well. I mean, I'm hearing about all of these things that I 'should' be doing, and I was starting to feel a bit... discouraged. So I skipped a workshop and just sat outside and talked to people. VERY. GOOD. CHOICE.

With my "First Timer" ribbon firmly attached to my badge, people seem to want to come up and ask me how I am liking things. This led to a conversation about how things were just so...overwhelming, and how I was learning a lot of things that I am evidently NOT doing, or doing WRONG, though I should add that NOT A SINGLE PERSON has told me those words. It's just a feeling I've gotten, sitting in some of the workshops with people who are SUPERSTARS.

I was instructed to WRITE. That's all. Just write. Yeah, yeah, I've heard that before. And the people that have told me that are very smart people, people whose opinions I value and advice I trust. However, hearing some of the people here tell me that everyone has a different style, a different way of doing things, but the end result is the same - a book? Yes, that's what I needed to hear.

Thinking about it though, I've heard those words before, just said in a better way. Does THERE ARE MANY ROADS TO OZ sound familiar? Yeah, I know. I've been hearing that for months. Actually, for over a year. So I KNOW this already. But hearing it again, in a different way, was nice too.

Lessons learned? I need to WRITE. Take the advice I can use, leave the rest for others. And most of all, here at Nationals - HAVE FUN.

I'll keep you posted!

Day Four - So last night I got grounded...

I was up a bit late last. I walked into my room after midni...ahem...after one am. But I had a good excuse - I was "networking". When I walked in, the room was dark and quiet. So in I tiptoed, brushed my teeth, changed into my jammies, and headed for my bed. Kathy sat up real quick and issued a "You are GROUNDED, young lady!" Just like that, I was sixteen again, totally busted for breaking curfew.

We had a great laugh about it, and had a wonderful chat about all of the people we've met and the things we've learned so far. And I'll have you know that the whole "meeting people in the bar" thing is SO true. However, I firmly believe that as this is a professional conference, and I'm trying to look professional, I should stay not-so-tipsy. SO I've limited myself to ONE drink during every bar trip. Just one. Followed by much water. I think I'm just afraid that I'll have more than one and look like an idiot. You may know how that goes. Or maybe you don't.

I've been feeling very guilty because I've spent some extra time with Kristan Higgins. Charity LOVES Kristin's work, and told me I had to meet her. Well, she's just about one of the coolest authors I've met, and she knows lots of people. But beyond that, she's a stay-at-home mom who understands how hard it is to write with kids around. She's just great!

Yesterday's Keynote Luncheon Speaker was Lisa Kleypas. She was adorable, while still being classy. The fact that she gave a nod to the recently departed Kathleen Woodiwiss was even classier.

I was invited to a meeting of the RomVets, the Romance writing Veterans. I'm a Navy Veteran, and it was really nice to be around other women who shared some of my same struggles. I'm looking forward to joining their group.

I've met so many people here, and had some really cool things happen to me. However, some of those things are better left unsaid on a blog. The Man knows all about them, or will as soon as he checks his e-mail today. But suffice it to say that the "something big" that I was feeling - yeah. Wow! Some people are not nearly as scary as I thought they were.

No, I haven't done an agent or an editor appointment. I'm learning stuff here to use in New Jersey, when I pitch my book. I already know who I want to pitch to in NJ, though, thanks to some of the people I've met here. Very charming people, those agents. :)

I don't know how much time I'll have for blogging today. I've got a full workshop schedule, and am only blogging now because I snuck up to the room for some caffeine, to ward off an impending headache. I'm headed back into the fray soon though. Plus, there are publishing events today, and I'm going to try to make it to some of those. However...

I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Day Three - Opportunities, Missed?

(OR - Why I ditched the one workshop I really needed to talk to an already bestselling author for over an hour...)

This morning, I had plans to go to at least three workshops. Big plans. I spent the better part of my first day here pouring over the Conference book, searching for the workshops that related to what I 'needed'. In my opinion, I 'need' to learn about the business side of the house. I need to learn about editors and agents, promoting and pitching. Yes, I need to hone my craft, because, I can admit this - I am NOT the best writer out there. But I'm starting to believe some of you guys when you say that I'm pretty good. So the writing thing? I'm comfortable with my storytelling abilities, even though I know that I need to improve my craft. But that is an ongoing process. I mean - Jenny Crusie still talks about how she can get better, right?

I had it all planned out. I wrote down all the workshops I 'needed' to attend. I wrote them down by day, even though I didn't bring my Day Planner. I wrote them down in order by time, with the room number and the presenter, and the title of the workshop. I even had them in order of personal importance.

At 8:30 this morning, I was sitting there waiting for Joan Johnston to start her "Writing the Unputdownable novel" workshop. She passed out her books to a select number of people, and I got one. Then she told us that we'd have to SPEAK. In front of the whole room. About her topic. And it would be taped. I almost barfed. Almost. The workshop was fantastic. I learned a lot about how to start and end chapters that keep readers wanting more. Plus, Joan was fabulous. I will admit that I haven't read any of her books yet, but I WILL NOW. She made a fan in that workshop, and I am grateful for the knowledge that she passed to us.

At 9:45, I was ready for Anna DeStefano and Michelle Grajkowski to present "She Said/She Said: Communication Skills that can make or break your career". Honestly, it was refreshing to see someone of Anna's caliber talking about how GOSSIP IS BAD, and how the things you say and do can come back to haunt you, and how really, isn't it just as easy to be nice and PROFESSIONAL to people than it is to be rude? Plus, she talked about how a rejection letter is about your WORK, not about YOU. It was perfect. They were both professional, and it reminded me of mine and Charity's attitude about the review blog - Always Honest, Never Cruel, and how if we can't find at least three nice or positive things to say about a book, we just won't review it. Really great lessons to live by, and work by. And I have to admit, it reminded me of my friend, author Jennifer Talty, who has recently been handed a professional temporary setback that many writers have really ranted and raved about. But not Jen. At least not in public. I don't know what she says to her best friend, or her husband, or her bedroom walls, but I do know that anywhere her name is shown, in e-mails and blog comments and her own blog, she has remained the utmost in professionalism.

I was supposed to be in an 11am workshop, Honing Your Pitch:Making the Most of your editor/agent appointment. I was looking forward to this one. I needed this one, as I plan to pitch in New Jersey, and I have no idea how it is done. This is really the one workshop that I came to Dallas for. And I blew it off.

Yes. I blew it off. I walked outside and sat down, just for a second, to get out of the air-conditioning. And up walked Victoria Alexander. Just like that, I knew that I would stay there and talk to her for as long as she kept talking, no matter what I might miss. I could buy the conference CDs, but there was no way that I could pay $99 and have a personal conversation with her, without her having me arrested or something for stalking. So we sat there, for over an hour, and talked about her books, and about her career, and about my book, and other people's books. I told her what I liked in her books, which ones I really remembered. She told me about the next one of hers coming out, and the one after that. (Yes, I know who the 'last man standing' is. But I'm not telling.) I listened to her talk about how she writes, and how she doesn't write, and things that she wished she would've known, and things she was glad that nobody bothered to tell her. She even listened to me too, even though I'm pretty sure that I sounded like I was having a HUGE FanGirlSqueeFest at her expense.

She listened. I can't give a higher compliment than that. She knows that I'm a first timer. She knows that I'm nervous. She knows that I read and love her books. But she listened to me. She let me gush about her work, of course. But she listened to why I liked specific parts of her last book, she told my how and why she did certain things, and she listened to my reactions. She listened to me (no, not THAT one!), and I think she actually heard what I had to say. It was so nice of her to talk to me in the first place, but then to sit there and chat with me like I had something to say?

Then I remembered - I do have something to say. I'm her fan. I read her books. Not only am I a writer, I'm also a reader. Regardless of whether my writing career is anywhere right now (and we can all say that it's not too far. That's ok. It will go farther!), I am her audience. So of course she listened to me. I am the person that enables her to keep writing.

But also? She's just NICE. I mean, really, she's a NICE person. She's funny. She's witty. She's charming. Yes, those are all true. But she saw my little orange "First Timer" tag on my badge, and she spoke to me anyway. She didn't know that I'd read her books when she sat down. She had no idea that her latest book "What a Lady Wants" was the very last book that I read before getting on the plane, or that it's still on my front patio waiting for a re-read when I get home. She just saw me there and sat down, and opened up a whole world of possibilities for me.

That's what the past few days have been like for me. I've had some plans, places I thought I needed to be. But I made the promise to myself on the plane on the way here that if it came right down to it, I'd let myself free from those written plans, and follow the wind, if I had the chance. Sure, I'd choose the workshops that were smart career choices, instead of just going to the ones done by a speaker I loved. However, if it came down to rushing off to a workshop or chatting with an interesting person, I'd stay and chat.

So today? Was that workshop, that I've already heard RAVE reviews about, a missed opportunity? Not. Even. Close. I'm very glad to say that I totally ditched the one workshop I really wanted in order to shoot the breeze with an author that I've greatly admired for years. I needed to pinch myself a few times to make sure I was awake. I was. I still am.

I told you something BIG was going to happen. I made a choice, and I am confident it was the right one. I wouldn't trade a single second I spent with her. I'm actually hoping that I'll get more chances like that, opportunities to ditch my schedule and really connect with more people. That's what being here is all about after all. Right?

I'll keep you posted!

Day Two - Recap

It's the end of the day (or the beginning of the next one. Whichever way you look at it is fine with me). I am, still, in awe of this place and the amazing people that are here.

The Literacy signing was overwhelming, but in a good way. There was a huge room, filled with 450 authors, who were just as excited to see me as I was to see them. It was amazing. You saw my list of the people that I got to meet, and those were just the ones whose books I bought. I met others. Many others.

I got to gush at Barbara Samuel, who is actually responsible for the book review blog. I wrote my very first review, not much more than a FGSF, of her Madame Mirabou's School of Love. I adored that book, and couldn't wait to tell people about it. After meeting her tonight, I am even more glad that I told people all about that book. No, our review site isn't HUGE, but it still makes me proud to be able to tell people about books that I've enjoyed.

I met Caridad Ferrer. We reviewed her book, Adios To My Old Life, which is up for a few RITA awards this year. Gret LOVES that book, and Caridad signed a bookmark for Gret. She was just so NICE.

I spoke with Alesia Holliday/Alyssa Day. When I told her that Charity said "hi", she looked at my name tag and smiled BIG, and said that she reads our site. It was a very cool moment for me, since I used to read the LC every day. She even gave me an Alyssa Day bag to carry all of my books.

I had a moment of silence with Eileen Rendahl, another former member of the LC. We both sighed over how the LC is no more. Very sad. But OMB Eileen is just totally gorgeous, and I love her books, and am excited to read her newest one.

I had dinner and drinks with Kristan Higgins. She has been so freakin' amazing to me practically since I checked in. I didn't get a picture with her (or ANY of these people, darn it!), but I was there, with her. She wrote Fools Rush In, Charity's Top Pick of 2006. I have to tell you, she's even more charming than I thought she would be, and I have really loved getting to know her.

I sat with some Cherries at the bar (of course!). I wish I would have had my notepad to write down their names, but I didn't. However, Julie is wonderful, and she gave me a Cherry sticker for my nametag. And I just adore her.

I had drinks (well, just one, but I made it last!) with Vicki Lewis Thompson, who writes the Nerd books. I still can't believe I sat there for a while and talked to her. And guess what - just like all of the other amazing writers I've met here, she's a REAL PERSON. Why this continues to amaze me, I'll never know. But she was wonderful, and funny, and gracious, and, and, and...

I finished the night outside, talking with Misty Simon. I met Misty in March, in Boonseboro. We had lunch together with a few other authors (including Samantha Graves/CJ Barry, who I also saw at lunch today). I had the very best talk with Misty tonight, and it was just great to talk to an author that is a few steps ahead of me career-wise, but who still spoke to me like a peer. Misty is wonderful, and I can't wait to read her books.

I've enjoyed meeting some of the really big name authors. They have all been gracious, warm, giving, and encouraging. But I have to admit that some of my best moments so far have been with some of the newer authors, like Kristan and Misty. There just seems to be an almost instant camaraderie that springs up between people here, whether you are published or not, new to the business or not, scared spitless to speak to a 'star' or not.

Again, just like New Jersey, I feel like I've found my people. I can hardly wait to see who I will meet tomorrow.

I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Day Two - Literacy Signing

Short post. Just went to the Literacy Signing and OhMyBob were there a ton of people! I met some of my very favorite authors, and lots of authors that are new to me. There werre over 450 authors signing their books. It would have been overwhelming if everyone hadn't been so darn nice!

Quick list of people I met, then I'm off to have dinner with Kristan Higgins:

Patricia Gaffney - she is just so amazing, I love her!
Caridad Ferrar - up for TWO Rita's, LOVED her book, it was featured on D&d, totally wonderful woman
Day Leclaire - new author, very nice!
Eileen Dreyer - old favorite, signed TUMF for the D&d blog
Anne Stuart - another old favorite, signed TUMF for the D&d blog
Pamela Britton - a Nascar book, looks interesting, very nice lady
Ruth Wind - one of my faves, using a pen name for this one, can't wait to read it!
Lori Avocato - great lady. having dinner with her as soon as I finish this post
Victoria Alexander - you already know I love her, she's a riot!
Alyssa Day - cool streaks in her hair, said she loves the D&d site, so she's a keeper :)
Eileen Rendahl - Beautiful! Plus, she's one of the LC, so you know she's a fave
Teri Thackston - new to me, but very very nice
Amie Stuart - new to me, sweet lady, and she gave me a teddy bear. Gotta love that.

Ok, now I'm late to dinner. I'll gotta run!

I'll keep you posted!

Day Two - Goody Room

Had to dash back to the room to drop off all of the goodies I just picked up! Oh my lands, that room is just packed full of freebies, including BOOKS, bookmarks, games, keychains, pens and CHOCOLATE. I adore the writers that add a little bit of the dark stuff. :)

Here's a pic of my stash from the first pass of the room. The books I grabbed this time around are:

got the look, James Grippando
There Goes The Bride, Lori Wilde
Bitten & Smitten, Michelle Rowan
Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen
Breaking Free, Lauraine Snelling
Late Night Talking, Leslie Schnur
The Winter Rose, Jennifer Donnelly
The Blue Zone, Andrew Gross
Mad Dash, Patricia Gaffney

Also, there were a bunch of excerpts, and I picked those up as well. Also, for learning craft, I got "Secrets, The Best in Women's Erotic Romance" even though I don't write erotic, or anything like erotic. I thought it would be interesting to see how it's done. Plus, they had Volumes 1-15, so I grabbed two of them. I'm sending one to Charity, even though she doesn't write erotic either. Never hurts to have research books available.

Now I'm heading back downstairs, to see how many new people I can meet!

I'll keep you posted!

Day One Recap

I forgot to post the picture of the Welcome Gifts we got. You'll see the bag, black and green, great straps, lots of room for books. Also a Conference program and a Journal and the Notes for all of the Workshops. On top of the workshop notes book is a very nice pen, along with my nametag and pin.

What RWA bag would be complete without books? Here are the titles from my bag. I'm guessing everyone else got the same, but will investigate later to be sure...

The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell, Samantha James
The Leopard Prince, Elizabeth Hoyt
Bite Me If You Can, Lynsay Sands
McKettrick's Luck, Linda Lael Miller
The Shoe Queen, Anna Davis

I don't have time to even read the back covers of these right now, but you can look them up and tell me which ones to read and dish when I get home.

Ok, off to meet more people now, on my own. The "we" is split this morning, as the other two are attending Chapter functions. I'm on my own, but weirdly enough - not the least bit nervous. Just filled with this curious sense that SOMETHING BIG is going to happen today.

I'll keep you posted!

Two for me, Three for her...

It is day two for me. I'm heading off to the Goodie Room, then just wandering around for a while. The Big Event is tonight, and I'm so excited!

I got this picture and e-mail from my friend Carolyn. She's at the camp as a chaperon, with Gret. Gret seems to be having a grand time, pictured here with Carolyn's daughter Kelsey. Gret is wearing black, of course.

I'm on Day Two, she's on Day Three. I'm wondering which of us is having more fun...? ;)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Day One, Part the second

Still here. Yeah, I know, like I'd leave, right? We (whenever I say "we" I will be speaking of RSS, Kathy and myself) had drinks at the top of the Reunion Tower. We sat there through the entire hour-long rotation, soaking in the sights of Dallas and meeting a new friend from this area. See that pic? Isn't it stunning?

After drinks, we headed outside so I could pollute my lungs. While there, we ran into Victoria Alexander, and had an amusing conversation about how she kills her husband, Charles, in every one of her books.

We've met a variety of people so far, and the conference hasn't even "officially" started yet. As most of you told me, the people are warm and friendly, and I doubt it has much to do with the actual temperature outside. Again, like last year at the NJRW Conference, I feel very blessed to be among a group of writers that are not only gracious but very giving.

Truly, my cup runneth over.

I'm really HERE...

Here I am, at RWA Nationals in Dallas, Texas. The conference doesn't "officially" start until tomorrow, but RSS, Kathy Mix and I got here earlier today. We wanted to get settled in and scope things out.

I won't bore you with details of my VERY early morning after the VERY late night. I won't chronicle how at 10:15 I had firmly decided NOT to attend, due to a sobbing seven year old. I won't even explain how I possibly caused bad relations with the Brits because I think I may have snored, VERY loud, on the plane.

What I will do is tell you that this place is amazing. We've been here for a few hours and already I'm overwhelmed. But in a good way. I've met some of the nicest people, including Maureen Child. Maureen immediately took the voice of my friend BCB, who has told me for the past year that I'm a WRITER, and has been great at encouraging me. I'll be looking for Maureen in the bar, which is where I've been instructed to hang out in order to meet new people. (Honey, if you're reading this - it's TOTALLY for research. I'll only be drinking cranberry juice. Really!)

I'm going to try to blog a LOT this week. Ask your questions, tell me which authors I should seek out, let me know what you want to hear. Tell it to me in the comments.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping...

...into the future...

And I don't like it one little itty bitty bit. Today is the anniversary of the day that my life changed forever. Some of you may be familiar with this feeling. For those of you that aren't, please disregard this little swagger down memory lane.

I was 19 years old when I met my destiny. It was temporarily cloaked in the body of a 22 year old sailor, with dark stubble, hazel eyes, and a beer in his hand. Love at first sight it was not. I was in the navy, in school in Florida, and studying late on Friday night so I could be the Honor Graduate from my second training school. He was partying with a group of people on the balcony, outside my room. Instead of introducing himself to me, he dragged me into a physical comedy routine that ended with me soaked in beer. I got cleaned up, he apologized, handed my underage self a beer, and it was pretty much a given where I'd be spending my spare time from them on. Fun? Yeah, he was that. As well as being a worldly sailor, seeming so much more mature than me, he was also a musician, and he had a place off base. To my 19 year old self, these things were perfect. Looking back, I realize that he was not my destiny, but at that time in my life, it sure seemed that way. However, he was only the vehicle, the motorcycle ride to my fate, as it were.

As often happened, I became in a 'delicate condition'. Young and incredibly optimistic, we married. Mistake? In hindsight, yes. By that time, I was already well on my way to becoming a mom. Marriage wouldn't have changed that. Oh, but to be able to whisper those simple words of truth to my younger self. It would have saved me countless sleepless nights, many tears, and even a few broken bones and more than a few bruises. Again, hindsight. I mentioned that my destiny was only temporarily cloaked in his body, right? On this very day, fifteen years ago, my whole world went topsy-turvy, and it hasn't been the same since.

At 10:15 am on July 9, 1992, my oldest child was born, forever changing the course of my life and thrusting me at once from the teenager I'd been a mere two days before (my birthday is on the 8th, you understand) to a person that was now responsible for the very life of a whole other person, albeit a very small person.

I can still recall that day, those hours leading up to that moment that she came rushing out of her safe harbor. I was anxious. Would I be good enough? Strong enough? Already I'd gotten the feeling that I'd be doing most of the parenting on my own. Could I love her more than I loved anything else, including myself? Was there a book I could read that could prepare me for this? Fear gripped me with every contraction. I was in a hospital with people that barely spoke English, on an island in the middle of the Caribbean, with no friends and no family, save for the man that helped me into that condition, and he was only mostly sober. I called my mom countless times from a payphone in the hall, literally doubling over with the pain from my body's readying itself to let her fly solo. Once, I dropped the phone and fell to my knees, tears springing to my eyes, as I heard my momma on the other end of the phone, calmly trying to offer advice to her only daughter, crying right along with me for most of the night. I wanted her to be there so much, I wasn't always sure which hurt more, missing her or the contractions.

Finally, my daughter made her appearance. Time stopped for me. It was like God, who I'd always secretly doubted actually existed, hit 'Pause' for me, allowing me to capture and record everything in my mind's eye, every smell, every sound, every single thing. I can see the stark sterility of the delivery room, the green of the doctor's scrubs and the white of his mask against his brown skin. I can smell the faint hint of alcohol radiating from the pores of my husband, and the tangy smell of my own blood. But mostly, I saw Heaven. When that doc held her up for me to inspect, it was like that very same God that I had doubted shined a celestial light right down upon her head, illuminating her for eternity as the beacon of change in my life, and he allowed the angels to herald her arrival with a soft chorus of Amazing Grace. For someone raised in a Baptist church, with a Southern momma and a family that believed, if sometimes only on Sundays, in the existence of a Supreme Being, that Heavenly light and chorus of angels might as well have been a phone call from the Almighty Himself. Looking at that perfect face, and oh my soul she was so perfect to behold, I knew that God existed. There was just no way in hell I'd created her on my own, and I was pretty sure she hadn't gotten much from the man next to me either. It could only be God. That was my shining moment. I got God, and motherhood, wrapped up in a perfect pink blanket, with shining brown eyes and a serious look on a determined face.

She's changed over the years. I don't even know how to explain all she's been through. She was the sweetest baby, hardly ever crying, with a big full laugh that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside her soul. She spoke her first word, momma, when she was about 5 months old, and was talking in short sentences by nine months. At two, she could clearly say "Don't antagonize me!" to her uncle. He didn't listen very well though. She named her brother, because she could pronounce Michael but she couldn't quite get out Gabriel, and she doted on him and claimed him as her own, regardless of the stretch marks he'd given to me. I can remember fighting with her at three, when she unbuckled herself and climbed out of her car seat, and refused to get back into it. I pulled over and put her out on the side of the road, then moved the car about 15 feet. She screamed at me, not in terror but in anger. How dare I make her buckle if she didn't want to! Three was a rough year, for both of us. By four, she'd calmed down enough to enjoy helping me, and was settling into the role of big sister very well, to her three other siblings.

At five, she dropped my hand at the front door on the first day of school, kissed me goodbye, told me not to cry because she'd only be gone a short while, and walked off down the hall without looking back. At six, they all went to stay with my mom while I went on a naval deployment. That was the hardest time of my entire life, as the baby almost lost his life and I actually had to fight the state of Texas to get them all back. Through it all, she reassured and comforted me, always touching my hand or cheek when I needed it most, usually offering a smile or an 'i love you' at just the right time. By her seventh year, we'd found our future as a family, and she settled in quite nicely to being a Daddy's Girl to the man that still adores her more than life itself. But not more than I do. Yes, he chose her, as he chose all of of us, so he gets points for that. And yes, he's never, not for a single second considered himself a 'step-father', and has almost come to blows with people that have called him that. But really, I claim just a drop more, because she was mine first. I nurtured her in my own body. I nursed her, and changed her diapers and bandaged her knees before we knew his face.

Today, I woke at 4am and drove her to camp. She expressed her concern at being gone from all of us, and reminded me that she'd never actually been anywhere, except a sleepover, without at least one of us. Her fear surprised me. If I had to choose one word to describe her, it would be fearless. That's how she seems to me. Fearless. If something bothers her, she faces it until it isn't a problem for her.

She is the most amazing young woman I know, and I know quite a few. Is she the perfect teenager? Hardly. She has her moments of stubborness (no idea where she gets that!), she occasionally gets mouthy, even shows disrespect once in a while. But overall? Those moments are far outweighed by her moments of brilliance, when she showers her younger sisters with devotion, or her grandmother with affection, her father with laughter or her brothers with loyalty. When she leans her head on my shoulder while we're watching a movie, or kisses me right in front of her friends. When she sends me a text message with something funny that she's seen, just because she knows I'll laugh as well. When she makes and brings me a cup of coffee in the morning because she knows I had a late night at work and need the boost. When she writes a poem for my favorite author, because she knows it will make me smile. Her brilliance shines through in those everyday moments where her maturity and compassion far outweigh her actual years.

I've watched this girl grow up. In many ways, I've grown up right along with her. As the oldest, she's been around to see all of my shortcomings, all of my spectacular bad-mommy moments, though she rarely reminds me of them. She's seen me survive abuse, she's seen me walk away from heartache, she's seen my tears when I had no idea how to get out of bed. She's watched me try for love again, choosing so carefully because I had other people to consider, not just myself. She's watched me build a life with a man, a very very good man, watched how I chose him, how we interact, how he treats me. I talk to her, long and often, about what she deserves, and she believes it because she knows that I won't accept any less anymore. She's seen me at my worst, when my world crashed with the near death of my youngest son, and the actual death of my mother. And still, through all of that, she loves me.

When I dropped her off this morning, she was thinking not only of camp and how much fun she would have this week, but also of me. She knows that this week, I'm taking another step towards my dream of being a published author, heading to a writers conference in Dallas while she is at camp. She hugged me and told me to have fun. Fun. She understands how nervous I am, but she's so excited that I'm taking this step. She's one of my biggest fans.

I have other children. Five other children. They are all beautiful and brilliant in their own distinct ways. Each of them owns a piece of my soul. I'd walk through the very bowels of hell for any single one of them, slay a dragon or kill a man with my own bare hands to save them. that instinct, that mothering urge, was born on this day though. On that day she was born and changed my life. On the day I realized that yes, I do have it in me to love someone more than myself, and yes, it might be hard, but I really could manage, even on my own if I had to.

She may be the daughter, but she's taught me so much. She taught me how to be a mom.

I love you, Gretchen.

Happy Birthday.