Another thankful year full of love, but this one is extra sweet

Walking on the beach, the love of my whole heart and soul tells me he has to ask me something.

And getting on one knee, Seth says: “Will you marry me?”

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Thankful for our family who captured this moment from the dunes. So sneaky!

Yes. forever yes, I say, shocked just as much at the size of the diamond as the fact he wants me to spend forever with him, and the fact our families are hiding and slowly emerging from the dunes.

I’m the happiest ever — I get another family to love with Sherri, Woody, Beck and Zoee, plus more, and move into a whole new chapter of life.

* * *

My sister walks across the stage at the University of Alabama, gaining a degree in food and nutrition. She’s on her way — and I’m the happiest and proudest big sister.

She did it. And now she’s one step closer to becoming a dietitian, making our society healthier one piece of advice at a time.

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The cutest Bama grad.

* * *

Seth and my brother Jason bond over the fire pit at my brother’s new home — they’ve basically been bros since they met.

They talk and bond over football and golf and loving God and their walks with the big guy upstairs.

And I sit back and think about how thankful I am for Seth and Jason’s relationship and openness to talk and be honest and vulnerable.

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They aren’t too manly to have a few fruity cocktails on a rooftop bar.

 

* * *

My parents gift us with a trip to Dominican Republic — one of our family’s best trips with laughs and pool time and lots of food and too many Mamajuanas.

It’s Seth’s first time out of the country and all of the Strong children’s first trip to Dominican, and a perfect time to spend together.

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Turn up.

* * *

As we sit around our family supper tables this year, I can’t help but think of what I’m most thankful for: love.

It’s not just because I’m recently engaged. Or just because I’m in the midst of wedding planning. Or just because it’s what you’re supposed to say on Thanksgiving.

It’s because I have a hell-of-a-great family surrounding me, loving me, supporting me. It’s because I’m so thankful for who is surrounding me, who will be with Seth and I on our special day in less than 160 days — all people who have played parts in my life to make me into the person who I am today.

And it’s mostly because the Lord tells us how special love is in Corinthians: And now these three remain — faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Love is my favorite, but I’m also thankful for how life has played out this year, smoothly and just like God planned. And my Duchess and Chiba, Miller Lite, good health, cosmetologists who fix your hair after you think you can do it on your own, Mexican food, pizza, football weekends with Seth, allergy medicine that’s saved my life from spending most of my daily time in a very old building, and the after-school writing club I lead at a local charter school.

Cheers to another Thanksgiving, and here’s to another year full of people and things to be thankful for.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. -Psalm 100:4

 

2018: A year that showed me the importance of trusting the process

I sit in the quiet newsroom on a Saturday and reflect on the past year.

Gee, I’ve learned a lot.

I look at the stack of newspapers from the year I keep in my desk drawer and think about the tiring and happy moments. I think about all the great people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard and had the chance to share.

At 24, it seems I’ve just really grown into the person I was born to be over the last three years. There have been so many bumps along the way — and it’s so special to see how God has made everything come together.

There are not many crazy events that have happened in my life in the last 365 days — it was a pretty mellow year.

But one of the greatest opportunities was moving back home to work at the paper I grew up seeing my dad read each Sunday — the paper that used to have pages and pages of television listings that I so clearly remember.

Wading through a Socastee neighborhood in September after floodwaters rose following Hurricane Florence.

I saw some of the most hard-to-believe things — floodwaters invading communities and homes, death after death after death, the inside walls of the county jail. And I’ve written some stories I’ll never forget — one on a gang bust, circumcision protesters, countless prostitution arrests.

The Sun News front page Dec. 14, 2018

Most importantly, I have a better outlook of where my life is headed. I bought a house. I survived bike week in Myrtle Beach. I know for certain I want to go back to school to become a journalism professor one day. And I’m content in where my life, faith and happiness are going into 2019.

This year hasn’t been all happiness though. Things got real in our newsroom when hundreds across our company were laid off. It’s a scary feeling as a young person.

And even when it’s a choice to leave, it’s sad, but bittersweet, to see your newsroom bestie move on to another paper.

Our family lost a young loved one, and a fellow high school friend passed, too.

And each year without my Grandma Reba is tough.

On a lighter-but-not-fun note, my forehead wrinkle is really setting in as I grow older. Everyone who tells me they can’t see it needs to stop lying — we all know it’s there.

But I’m #blessed I haven’t found a grey hair yet.

Going forward into a new year, I hope to continue on the path of contentment with my life. Be aware of my thoughts and actions, and my intentions of what I say, think and do. Hold myself accountable when I think negative things or want to say mean things. And pause to search my heart for the decisions I’m going to make.

I plan to continue serving the community I love, teaching people about journalism and why we do what we do ,and kick ass, writing quality work.

All this said, I wish I had my older self years ago to give advice to my younger self as a teen and girl in her early 20s. I wish I could have told her to trust the process — that every heartbreak will make you grow, every failure will teach you lessons, every step of the way is God’s plan to get you to where you are now. Cliché? Yes. But is it the truth? Absolutely.

I never knew what the feeling of contentment was until this season of my life. I never imagined I’d be 100 percent content with my life, where it’s going, my career, my friendships, my relationships with my family members.

I was talking myself into being content with not getting married and being OK with staying single.

But, after dreaming forever about finding my person, the best thing ever happened in 2018 — I met Seth.

Trust the process.

Happy New Year. HS

My first trip to jail — no, not as an inmate

The correctional officer tells me to put my purse in one of the lockers.

It’s the last place I want to leave my new Kate Spade.

I’m not normally that boujee, but I am here.

I look at him unsure, put my bag inside and close the blue door.

He hands me the key and I tug at the locker door to make sure it’s locked.

“It’s locked,” he said in a don’t-worry-about-it tone.

I put the tiny key in my skirt pocket.

And then I take a seat outside of the huge and very secured jail door.

No — I haven’t been arrested.

Yes — I’m on the job and at a bond hearing, my first one in Horry County.

I’m anxious as I wait to go behind the four — yes four — thick doors and into the room where inmates wait to see if they’ll be released.

People gather in the waiting area to watch the hearings on television screens.

I’m the only one they’ll let back.

The officer says it’s time.

My heart starts to pound.

He takes me through three of the doors, and each one slams hard behind us. He swipes a key card or pushes a button at each door to unlock them.

I’m on my own to get to the fourth door.

I walk in my hot pink mules on the concrete floor to the last door. And block walls are on each side of me.

I look through the sliver of a window and see inmates right there — they are feet away, and I have to walk right by them.

Of course they are regular people who have been suspected of doing bad things. And I’m used to seeing mugshots and hearing about those bad things each day — not much phases me anymore.

But from the movies and gossip and the society I’ve grown up in, criminals or alleged criminals always seem to have been separate from the outside world, not just physically.

It’ still an odd feeling to be in the same room.

I knock.

Nobody comes to the door and a brief panic starts because I’m locked in a hallway I can’t get out of either way I turn.

Then I bang on the thick door — it takes a lot to make a noise through these.

All the inmates sitting on the rows of benches turn to look. Another officer lets me in.

He opens the door and I walk through, trying not to make eye contact with anyone.

I hear giggles from the inmates as I walk through and whispers.

I’m so uncomfortable. And I’m the only person from the news media there, so all eyes are on me as I walk in.

And what’s even scarier is they aren’t handcuffed and have free reign around the court room, though many are seated. Oh, and that there’s like only two officers in the room.

But most of the inmates listen well to the officers’ instructions.

I’m told where to sit — on a cream-colored plastic chair beside the pew-like bench the women inmates are sitting on. The men are in a glassed off area where the door is I walked through.

The woman are calm, motionless. The men — loud and joking around.

I just watch.

The first person is up.

He gets a bond of about $100. And when it’s time for him to go back, he scoffs at the officers, says, “Take me to jail.”

He bucks his chest at an officer.

And a short scuffle starts.

I’m already freaking out that nobody in the room is wearing handcuffs or has shackles on their feet.

And then I remember — there are four bolted-tight doors between me and the free world.

I try not to panic.

Then it’s time for the two guys I’m there for to stand in front of the judge, who is sitting behind a glass wall.

The judge denies bond for both of them.

And they clearly aren’t happy, don’t understand.

The two men walk through one bolted door.

I stand up to go toward that same bolted door to the hallway that leads me to three more bolted doors.

But the guard won’t let me in the hallway just yet.

The two men are arguing with an officer, and he says he doesn’t want me in the hall with them.

So instead, I’m standing in the glass room with more than half a dozen inmates. And anxiety rushes to my head.

I need out.

He finally walks me down the hall to the three doors I’ll have to walk through to get out.

And I’m free.

I grab my purse out of the locker and rush to my car.
There’s no time to address my anxiety.

I have a story to get online.

Journalists are superheroes — everyone should know it.

I feel speechless. But there are things that need to be said.

Two editors and I sit in chairs rolled close so we can talk about a story I’m so excited to run.

We just figured out one more piece to add to the puzzle.

And then something hits home. A notification comes in.

My executive editor says it first — people have been shot at a newspaper building.

We immediately turn to the flatscreen televisions that line the wall of the newsroom.

I put my hand over my mouth, I don’t even gasp.

I know my face has to be white.

I get chills and tears fill my eyes.

News just broke — we don’t know why this happened or who did this yet.

Hours later there were answers — answers we got through hard-working journalists.

Five people dead.

Rob Hiaasen.

Gerald Fischman.

John McNamara.

Wendi Winters.

Rebecca Smith.

The Capital Gazette reported the suspect had a long-standing grudge against the newspaper. He had previously — and unsuccessfully — sued the paper for defamation.

Reporters at The Capital worked together and put out a paper the next day. I praise that hard work that was done in the midst of all of the emotions they must have been feeling.

I absolutely lose it when I get home from work while I watch the press conference.

Tears pour down my face — and it won’t be the first time tears pour after this.

Each time I see a tweet or story, I cry. And things don’t usually impact me like this. I haven’t had too much tragedy in my life. Normally one good cry and I’m over it.

But this — no.

This is insane.

Let me tell you who we are

I’m tired of people misunderstanding journalism.

We are not fake.

We do not make up lies.

We should NOT be the enemy of the people.

Those who aren’t journalists just don’t get how hard it is for us sometimes.

We get cussed out. We are told to our faces that we are not liked. We get hate mail, phone calls. We get trolled on social media. We get asked why we wrote that story.

We constantly argue with public officials who don’t want to tell us stuff — people whose salaries are PAID BY THE TAXPAYERS.

Our Carolinas regional editor Robyn Tomlin said it best in a column Friday: “I, myself, have had my tires slashed, my car keyed and have been called every name in the book. Even so, I’ve never truly felt unsafe. Unsettled maybe, but not unsafe. Until this week.”

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Don’t. Be. Mad. We. Shed. Light.

It’s simple — if we didn’t report, who would?

We tell the truth. Again, it’s simple — if we didn’t, we’d likely have a lawsuit against us for libel.

We uncover and report stories about all kinds of things — sex crimes against children that aren’t investigated properly, bacteria levels in the ocean, features on military veterans, armed robberies, murders, eating disorders.

It’s our job. We get paid to do it.

We get paid to take time to dig into things that other people may not have time for or necessarily know how to navigate and research.

I was trained to search public documents and find things.

I was trained to write fair and ethically and give every possible person a story involves the chance to tell his or her side. And because we do that DOES NOT mean we are putting our own personal opinion into a story.

Listen, I’ve got plenty of opinions. Plenty. But I choose to stay neutral — it’s a part of the career.

I don’t talk about my political views publicly. I just don’t.

I’m not an activist trying to push one side or the other. I’m simply presenting things that I’ve been told, I’ve uncovered, I’ve researched.

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The issue is people are ignorant to what we do and why we do what we do.

The issue is that we have a government that is trying to turn people away from and to hate the news media.

The issue is we are misunderstood for the reasons we push people for information.

We are your friends. We are not your enemy.

What we do matters. I’d hate to see what this world would look like without us journalists.

This is why I do it:

Why I do it 1

And this:

Why I do it 2

Oh, and this:

I can’t forget this:

And I’ll sure as hell will never forget this:

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Oh, how thankful I am for all the mean girls

We rush into the nastiest bathroom at Waccamaw High School.

I’m furious because they laughed at me. The means girls — my friend group — they laughed as I stood up to them for talking about my friend behind her back.

The whole incident is a blur. I hope it’ll come back to me later.

I’m past the point of tears. But my friend — still crying.

A teacher follows us into the bathroom because we stormed off from the mean girls’ table, visibly upset.

I tell her what happened.

I tell her I finally did it. My ninth-grade, unsure-of-who-I-am-yet self just stood up to the mean girls at the lunch table where I used to sit — the table my friend and I stopped sitting at a week ago with the girls who we thought were our friends.

“F*ck ‘em,” the teacher tells us.

I’m 14. And I don’t hear that word much. But I knew what she meant.

Behind those two screw-what-they-say words, I knew the teacher was telling us we are worthy of a friend group who respects us, who is honest with us and didn’t have to talk badly about us. We are worthy of being in a friend group that wasn’t a constant competition to be part of.

The hardest part — that friend who I stood up for went back to the friend group months later, and I never talked to her again.

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The group of my middle school friends who I became close with after I started running cross country. This photo of us with squinty eyes was taken after a Saturday charity race in 2008.

Girls can be mean. Really mean. We all can be.

It took me until after college to realize I had points in my life when I had been a mean girl sometimes, too.

But it didn’t take me long to realize those mean girls weren’t the type of friends I wanted.

And it didn’t take me long to realize there are mean girls everywhere, no matter how old you get.

***

It wasn’t the first time one of the girls from a certain sorority at my college had pushed me while walking past at Pub House, the bar that was torn down and now where a shiny Starbucks sits.

But it was the last time I let it happen without saying anything, taking action.

So I take to Facebook — what else would a girl who wants to call people out do?

I write about being tired of that sorority bullying my friends and that hate never wins. And I use the sorority’s name in the post, too.

The funniest part — I’m a legacy of that sorority.

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My three college roommates and I stuck together, especially junior and senior years. We’re still close and get together at least once a year to celebrate all our our birthdays, which fall within two months. Shannon, Madeline, me and Casey at our favorite spot — El Cancun restaurant.

A few days later, I’m contacted by the dean’s office.

I freak out because I’m about to graduate and part of me worries these girls have come up with this elaborate story to get me in trouble.

I walk into the dean’s office, my heart beating.

But I had nothing to worry about — it was the best conversation I could’ve hoped for.

It’s like she said without flat out saying that she understood my side.

I could tell she knew it was silly, high school-like drama — drama I knew I was too old for.

She didn’t want me leaving the university, graduating in bad spirits.

And I didn’t.

Great things happened to me before I graduated, things two years later I started to realize happened to reassure me the mean girls were calling me a whore just to be mean and pushing me around to belittle me.

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I presented my undergraduate research on discrimination against women in the workplace at SOURCE in 2016. The research was a project in one of my favorite classes — multimedia reporting of public issues.

I presented my undergraduate research project at a conference — a project on discrimination against women in the workplace. And I won my first ever award — the Terry Plumb Journalism Award for general reporting after covering a range of topics during my internship at The Herald in Rock Hill.

The great things were a push of encouragement, a you’ve-got-this reminder as I went into my first job as a journalist.

***

Now having shared the two worst bullying incidents I’ve been through, and if you mean gals have even read this far or at all, I’d like to thank all of the mean girls.

Thank you for making me strong enough to push through the hurt of your meanness.

Thank you for bullying me so in turn I could be my own advocate, telling myself and encouraging myself that all you said bad about me wasn’t true.

Thank you for being the subject in this it-was-hell-but-it-gets-better blog — a blog I hope will touch others who have struggled with the same things.

Thank you for doubting me because it feels so great to prove you wrong.

And most of all, thank you to my ex-friend group who abandoned me in ninth grade because you taught me how to be an independent, real, down-to-earth person. You all taught me what kind of friends I do want and what kind of friends I don’t want. You taught me to be a person who understands what really is key to making a quality life — humility, understanding and listening others’ brokenness, accepting people as they come.

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A big laugh at our old “neighbs” house. We always brought the moose blanket along.

A decade later, I see Myrtle Beach differently than I did as a girl

My preteen legs run fast to the top of my great aunt and uncle’s Myrtle Beach motel.

It’s pouring rain, and half a dozen of us cousins are racing to the top of the Midtown Motor Inn to see the rain falling over the ocean.

We sit at the top on that green artificial turf that covers the stairs and balcony floors.

We talk, watch the rain, climb on the stair railings like monkeys.

And now, more than a decade later, I drive by that old motel and remember how innocently happy we were running around those floors, swimming in the motel pool, knocking on guests’ doors and running away.

I remember us getting our own motel room for our cousin sleepovers, jumping on the two beds that had coin slots which made the beds vibrate – something you don’t see anymore. I remember grabbing warm towels out of the big dryer to help fold and put on the cart that took the clean towels to rooms.

I’ll never forget our countless trips to the Pavilion – my favorite amusement park that isn’t there anymore. I nearly cried when I heard it was going away.

I’ve been back in the area for about a month, reporting at The Sun News – a paper my family and I drove by tons of times when I was growing up.

But now I’m seeing the things I never saw in my lack-of-understanding-the-bad years.

A prostitution bust.

 

Police arresting someone in connection to drugs in an Ocean Boulevard hotel.

A Coastal Carolina football player charged by police with criminal sexual conduct, which I found in a routine look through police reports early one morning.

Part of me wonders – has there always been this much crime? Or did I just not know of it when I was a little girl? I’m not sure if that question can be answered.

But I’m so thankful for my job – a job that lets me dig into those issues, shine light where some may not want it shined.

I know it’s important to shine that light. I know families on vacation should know what’s going on. And I know locals should know the dangers around where they live.

Though I miss my young years, growing up ignorant to the bad stuff, I’m happy to be back to make a difference in the area that helped raised me.

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Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong.

They try to ‘skedaddle’ as the bulldozer is feet away

I hear her talking loudly over the bulldozer – the bulldozer that’s clearing out her home in the woods.

The photojournalist Jason and I covering the story realize what we were hoping for on the car ride over was true – the people living in this soon-to-be-gone homeless camp are there.

They’re collecting their stuff.

Their hands nearly black from dirt.

Sweating just feet away from the bulldozer.

They’re frantically grabbing everything they can so they can take it to where they’re going next – a destination they haven’t figured out yet.

We greet the two and the man waves his hand high in the air at us.

Now we’re standing a couple feet from them, asking what they’re doing, what their thoughts are about their things being scooped and placed in a dumpster.

And I’m just standing there in awe, like I was a few days ago when I first visited the camp. Nobody was there then, but you could tell it was someone’s makeshift home.

Clothes hung on coat hangers from tree limbs. Plastic bottles, mattresses, cans scattered about. Two tents nearly falling over.

I stand listening to the man and woman, trying to pull away from my emotions, away from the sadness I feel for this man and woman.

I have to get their story. A story I know people need to hear, a story I’m willing to trek through the muddy woods to get.

They’re a couple who met three years ago at bingo.

I start taking notes of what he’s saying.

I write down what they’re wearing – he’s in overalls, she’s in a sheer top and lace-like pants.

I write down their names – Mark and Sonya.

They met at bingo three years ago.

He has been homeless on and off. He has Graves’ disease, he says. He’s 60 years old.

She spent 15 years as a waitress. She had a husband who died in Afghanistan ten years ago. She has a son.

Three cops sit on the outskirts of the woods in their pick-up trucks.

They watch Mark and Sonya. They watch the bulldozer.

I walk over to them.

I’m quickly told they can’t comment.

And I think to myself – Dear, Lord please let there be a day where cops don’t think we’re the scum from the bottom of a shoe.

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I try to connect with the police. Try to show them I’m a human. Two know my family, my grandpa.

And then they’re friendly after we make the connection.

Mark and Sonya are deep into the woods now. Jason isn’t in sight.

I stand at the end of the trees waiting for him to come back, thinking I probably may never see Mark and Sonya again.

But I was wrong.

Two days later, they’d show up at The Sun News.

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

Homeless camp is like nothing I’ve seen before

“Hello. Hello. Anybody home?” my colleague Jason Lee calls into a homeless camp.

Nobody answers.

“Watch where you step,” he says to me. “There may be needles.”

The tree limbs work as hangers in a closet. Clothes hang on nearly every tree and blow in the wind. We keep thinking we’re seeing a person each time the wind makes the clothes move.

But no one is there.

Jason’s taking photos. I’m looking around.

Fresh donuts are in a box in a grocery cart. Another box is on the ground. It’s half full. Some donuts are smashed in the dirt.

There’s just absolute junk everywhere – a toilet seat, a bong, a cardboard wine box that’s been ruined by rain. I see a lamp shade, a half way set up tent, shoes.

I keep thinking – I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s just incredible.

 

Jason, a multi-media journalist, and I both agree it doesn’t feel right walking into someone’s home. Though the homes are outside and homes we aren’t traditionally used to.

We’re just off of U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach. We hear the cars racing by these two homeless camps, which are less than one hundred yards apart.

The reason we’re here is because one of the camps caught fire just a week ago. Our editor has sent us to check out the area again, to look for more camps.

I’m hoping we will run into people who live here. I want to hear stories about how they ended up living in the woods, what brought them here, what life is like in a tent.

And I want to tell those stories. I want to tell their stories to educate others, to shine light in these woods.

But nobody’s home.

We see a sign put up by county officials soon after the fire. It says the area will be cleaned up next week.

After looking at the area, we go to a warehouse-looking building that has a few businesses inside, like a motorcycle shop and another place where engines are built.

The owner of the building, a man who builds engines and rents out the motorcycle shop, says homeless people have lived in the woods beside his shop for the last 10 years. You can throw a rock from the camps and hit his building.

I wonder – why have these camps been set up so close to these businesses?

The camp closest to the building is the one that caught fire. The metal trashcan and area that burnt is still visible.

A manager at the motorcycle shop tells us that workers were throwing buckets of water on the flames to make sure the building didn’t catch fire.

I try to figure out what the story is here after seeing all of this. There are dozens of homeless camps in Myrtle. And I’ve got a lot of questions.

I have a feeling the story is a lot bigger than just one write up on these two camps.

We hop in Jason’s SUV and head to our next stop – an apartment where a 33 year old lived who died in a car crash a few days ago.

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong.

My first prison interview

The operator from a S.C. prison says, “You have 15 seconds left on this call.”

“Let me call you right back,” the woman tells me.

She’s in prison for attempted armed robbery – since 2013.

My reason for speaking with her – her 19-year-old son was shot dead the month before in Lancaster.

The last time she saw him – 2014.

And she isn’t allowed to go to his funeral.

I sit there and wonder how we got here, wonder why this happened.

I remember two days before, sitting down with another mother whose 17-year-old son was fatally shot.

I think about my grandparents who lost their son – my uncle – when he was just 19 years old. He was stabbed in the back with a knife at a football game.

I wonder – why so young?

Is it jealousy over a girl? Is it anger over who won a game? Is it because a bully’s feeling threatened?

What during teenage years could be horrible enough to kill somebody? Somebody with a whole life ahead of them.

My off-the-record conversations later tell me the truth, and it wasn’t just a silly game.

My goal with every interview I do on the streets and with families after a murder is to find answers, regardless of how bad I annoy the cops and friends and eye-witnesses. I do it because it’s a public safety issue. I do it to inform the public about what’s really going on.

The phone is on speaker. The boy’s grandmother and aunt, who both took care of him after his mother went to jail, sit on the sofa beside me.

The mother mentions her nine children.

But this one – he’s always stood out, she says.

I hold back my tears and finish my last questions: What kind of kid was he? What was he involved in at school? What type of father was he to his little girl?

I let her pause to hold tears back, too, and finish her answers.

And I leave the home with just a little bit of peace, hoping I gave the family some closure.

But I know the hurt will always be there.

 

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

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Here come the Americans

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We walk down a side street in Lastra a Signa, a small town outside of Florence, Italy, and my father asks me, “Why is everyone staring at us?”

“It’s your New Balance tennis shoes,” I tease him. The Italians – especially the Italian men – wear leather loafers.

Or maybe some know we’re American because we drive down a one-way street into oncoming traffic minutes after we get our rental car. We’re fine – more importantly the rental car’s fine. We now know a red circular sign with a horizontal white line means “one way.”

A 12-day family trip to Florence, Italy teaches us we stick out like sore thumbs in some cities around the Tuscan area. It’s mostly in the places where the locals frequent and Americans don’t venture – but that’s why we choose to visit those places.

Though we don’t have much to offer the Florentines, they have so much to offer us – architecture, history, art, leather, food.

The Italians are welcoming when we arrive in a new place. They’re patient when we can’t understand the language. And helpful when we can’t find the grocery store – and by helpful, they get in their cars and tell us to follow them to the store just to show us themselves.

 

The first authentic meal

I sit in a restaurant ready for my first real Italian meal.

The menu is, of course, in Italian. So my mother, sister and I go for the safe bet – pizza. My brother and father go for the pasta and risotto, not completely sure what will be in the dishes.

The waiter gives me a weird look when I only order one dish. But I ignore the look – I know there’s no way my 120-pound body could eat a normal four-course Italian supper all by myself.

The pizzas arrive about 10 minutes later. One by one the waiter puts them on the table.

It all looks appetizing except for one – my mother’s pizza.

She looks at it with eyeballs almost as big as the eyeballs on the full-sized, unpeeled prawns on top.

She hates seafood.

And she really hates those eyeballs looking back at her.

I quickly tell her to switch pizzas with me – I can tell from her almost-green face she wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

We finally get the hang of ordering after the next few meals.

And we learn what’s proper when it comes to food and drinks – like the chefs don’t cut your pizza for you, but they do cut your steak into strips. Like it’s not polite to ask for cream in your coffee after noon. Like the Italians eat their salads after their main course, not before like we do – it’s to help with digestion, apparently.

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Winery tours

A handful of wood barrels big enough for all five of us to fit inside surround me in a wine cellar at Castello di Verrazzano, an elegant vineyard with a castle and hectares of land that have produced wine for a very long time.

Our tour guide explains the contraption at the top – which looks like an old oil lamp. It’s a colmatori, and it lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.

It lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.

As the tour ends, our guide leads us to a nice dining room overlooking the fields of olives and grapes.

In front of me sits a line of four wine glasses – all for me. That’s when I start to wonder if we’ll make it to the next winery tour.

Several waiters come around and fill our glasses up with rosé – a light red wine with some grapes skins – and three other darker red wines, from a bold, smoky taste to a smoother taste.

We are told to drink the wines from right to left and pair each with certain cheeses, cured meats and the most delicious, sweet balsamic vinegar.

By the end, we’re full. We hop into our rental car. And drive to another city outside of Florence for our next tour.

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A walk around Florence

I keep my bag close as we walk around Florence.

The gypsies are like everyone else – they know we’re American and probably have lots of euros in our pockets.

The city’s small and easy to navigate.

The Piazza della Signoria, or the main square, sits right in the middle of Florence.

Hidden in alley ways and on street corners are gelato shops and coffee bars.

Each flavor of gelato is shaped like a mound sitting in an aluminum container with swirling designs on top.

I pick stracciatella – vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate drizzled over that hardens.

There are several palaces were the money-making, business-minded families lived during the end of the medieval time and into the Renaissance period.

My favorite one – the Medici palace. It’s known to the Florentines as Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

A stone-like bench surrounds the home. It’s where artists and businessmen sat and waited to meet inside to talk business.

The “front doors” of these palaces are at least 15 feet in the air – so the enemies couldn’t enter. A ladder would draw down for the family and friends to enter and exit.

Our tour guide tells us about the women, who were rarely allowed to leave the homes because of all the disease and filth people would just throw in the streets.

Instead, the women would dye their hair and sit in the sun on the terrace. Their idea of hair dye – urine. Yes, urine.

It was all about pale skin and light colored hair.

For make-up, women used white lead, which hardened on their faces. That’s where we get the term, “Cracking up laughing.”

 

Birth of Venus, David bring tears

I see it in the next room and immediately leave our tour group.

I stand on the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery, look at Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” painting right in front of me – a painting I studied three years ago in art history. It’s roughly 5 ½ by 9 feet.

Almost breathless, I stare at the beautiful colors – the strawberry blonde of Venus’ hair, the blue and green ocean, the pink of the robe her handmaiden holds.

It’s a feeling I can’t describe – I knew what it looked like in a textbook, but not in real life.

A few blocks down, I round a corner in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

And there he stands over 16 feet tall – David.

His detailed marble body brings tears to my eyes. He’s a miracle by Michelangelo.

With a slingshot over his shoulder and braveness in his eyes, he’s about to take on Goliath.

I stand there and think – if I lived here, there’s no way I’d take advantage of the oldness or history or art or food.

About 48 hours later, I’m stuffed in seat 37B for the 11-hour flight home – a flight I spent remembering all the beauty I’ve shared with my family.

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Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong