After leaving home, we drove all day until we found Asheville, North Carolina. I know my Dad must love me because he even let me drive his truck for part of the trip so I could enjoy my last few days in the US where driving a car (or truck) was an option. We stayed in Asheville for the night and woke up bright and early to visit the famous Biltmore Estate. This mansion was the Vanderbilt family’s country estate, built by George Washington Vanderbilt in 1895. The house has the reputation of being the largest private residence in America, and after walking through the house for hours and still not seeing it all, I believe it!
We took an audio tour, which included lots of fascinating details not only about the architecture and construction of the house (which took five years), but also about the Vanderbilt family and the love story of George and his wife Edith. It was really interesting to see the amount of people, time, and resources that were required to staff such a huge home; there was an entire wing dedicated to the servants, and the space the kitchen and pantries took up was staggering! My favorite part was seeing the outfits preserved from the early 1900s; sometimes I wish I grew up in an era where those types of dresses were fashionable! Although I am indeed grateful that 21st century life doesn’t require a girdle or a bone corset—those looked super painful.
After the tour we had lunch and then stopped by the estate’s winery and sampled some of their wines. I got carded at the winery, which reminded me that I was back in the states where people are paranoid about underage drinking… I hate getting carded. But I also don’t want to look old enough to not be asked to show it, so I guess I shouldn’t be complaining ; )
After leaving the Biltmore, we drove five more hours to our destination—Fripp Island, South Carolina. My Mom rented a huge home on the island where our whole family could stay while in South Carolina for Heath’s graduation from the Marine Corps. So my brother’s wife Amanda, my Uncle Dean and Aunt Cheri, and my grandparents joined us there, and it was like a mini-family reunion in the middle of South Carolina (which is funny because no one in our family actually lives in South Carolina!). Me and Tori got to share a room, and we made the most of our last few days together on the island. The house came with a Hummer golf-cart, which we tested out on an island excursion. We also found a tandem bike in the garage, which we took for a spin (and almost a crash). I think the bike was my favorite part, but I’m pretty sure we would’ve had a blast doing anything. Spending time with Tori is like that—it doesn’t matter what we do, we always have fun together (whether that includes barking at deer or pulling a fast Matrix move, hahaha!).
The next morning we drove to Parris Island for the long-anticipated day of our reunion with my brother Heath. His wife Amanda could hardly sit still the whole week before we left for South Carolina, and as they’re not usually a PDA-type couple, it was sweet to see how happy they were to be together again. The best part of our reunion for me was Heath’s surprise to see me! I’d been writing him letters at boot camp (he didn’t have access to a phone or the Internet, so writing was the only way we could talk), and I often bemoaned the fact that my trip home for Christmas wouldn’t include seeing him. So I tricked him into thinking I wouldn’t be there, and the shock was written all over his face when he saw me standing in line to say hi to him. I hadn’t seen him since before I joined Peace Corps 15 months ago, so I would’ve been happy to see him under any circumstances, but I’m so glad I got to be there for his graduation into the Marine Corps. He looked so different from the last time I saw him; when I left he had a huge handlebar mustache and a bald head, but now he looks so young and handsome in his uniform! I was incredibly proud and so happy that I could be there for his big moment. Congrats Heath!
We got to hang out with Heath on Parris Island for family day and hear all about how his 13 weeks of training had gone. We had a fun family picnic and went on a tour of the Marine base, seeing a museum, a gift shop, and even Heath’s bunk where he slept every night with his whole platoon. Here’s a pic of him showing us his gear!
The next morning we drove back to Parris Island to see the graduation ceremony itself. 400 men were graduating, so at first it was hard to locate which of the 400 identically-uniformed men was my brother, but I made it easy on him to find us! I was wearing bright red lipstick, which my aunt referred to as “Ukrainian red” (my dear friend Olha Petrivna would be glad to know that if I’ve learned anything in Ukraine, its not to leave home without lipstick! Haha). Heath said that’s how he spotted us from his position in his platoon, so I’m glad it was of help to him. 😛 [Later in the day I also learned that people in the South believe only streetwalkers (i.e. prostitutes) wear red lipstick, which should’ve bothered me more than it did… it just made me laugh and think how Ukrainian I’ve become. Southerners would be shocked by how Ukrainians dress if they get their panties in a knot about red lipstick!]
After the ceremony, we got a few pictures with Heath and then set off for Savannah, Georgia. My flight back to Ukraine was leaving Savannah that night, but we were going to all have lunch together in Heath’s honor before going our separate ways. My grandmother is a big fan of the Southern cooking personality Paula Deen, so we’d made reservations at her restaurant The Lady & Sons. It was a lovely meal, but right in the middle of it I realized how imminent my departure was, and how quickly my last few hours with my family were passing. It was especially hard to go, having spent so little time with Heath. But being there to watch him become a Marine was incredible, and it truly made my trip home to the US complete. With him, our whole family was together once again and when I’m back in Ukraine thinking about my trip home, those are the moments I’ll hold onto the most.
We found a pretty park in Savannah for a little photo shoot before driving to the airport, and the pictures came out wonderful! Here are my favorites:
I’ll save you the details of the sappy goodbyes; needless to say, saying goodbye is never easy. I wish I could tell you that I was ready to go back to Ukraine, and maybe even looking forward to being back, but at that moment in time it was only sheer willpower helping me board the plane. Maybe that’s what you get for having an incredible family—painful goodbyes that make you wonder what percentage of your heart you’re leaving behind when you go. In any case, I’m so incredibly thankful to be part of it, and already looking forward to the next time we’re all reunited : )
Thanks to everyone who made my trip home to the U.S. so memorable; those fond memories are the energy I carry back to Ukraine for my second year of service!