You know, when you grow up in rural West Virginia and when you first start looking at a map of the United States, everything on the other side of Ohio seems so foreign and exotic. But nothing ever seems so “cool” as California.

I’ll be honest: I do not feel that “cool” when I land in California. In fact, I usually feel like a wrung- out dishrag, because even with the advent of airplanes, getting to California is a chore, and COVID regulations don’t help. After wearing a mask for eight straight hours, I now have no tolerance left for people who talk about how uncomfortable a mask is and use that as an excuse. Is eight straight hours in a mask fun? No. Did I feel safer on the packed planes, than I often do at Walmart? Yeah, I did. Because everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, was wearing one, and those flight attendants weren’t playing. So if you’ve been reluctant to air travel during COVID, fear not: they have minimal outbreaks traced to planes, and it’s because masks aren’t an option, they are a rule.

But boy, it felt so good to rip that mask off after getting into my brother’s car. It felt even better to see him, my sister-in-law, and my baby niece in person; Lilly being in that unintentionally funny stage of age two. I haven’t seen any of them in person since October of last year, and while the advent of iPhones has made it easier to keep in touch, it doesn’t replace actually hugging Lilly, or sitting around with Mel, or insulting my brother’s COVID pony tail in person. Some things just require a personal touch.

I’m sure you’re just dying for me to tell you all the wonderful and interesting places we went on our trip, but Cali is on COVID lockdown, so the most interesting place we went was Raley’s, which is apparently West-Coast Kroger’s, which means the produce is cheaper and fresher, the alcohol aisles are larger, but they do have the worst cottage cheese I have ever tasted. I’m not kidding: Broughton Blue Label needs to sell their recipe to someone on the West Coast because those people are suffering, hard (also, RIP Broughtons. I will give Prairie Whatever a try, but I know already it won’t be the same).

The other most interesting place we went? Lowes, four times. You read that right. I went on vacation, and spent most of my time wandering around Lowes, but in all fairness, it was my fault. My fault, and the terrible design taste of the previous owners of my brother’s house.

His house is in a really cute neighborhood (they have wild peacocks!), and the inside has lots of windows and tall ceilings, and an adorable back yard that my niece loves to run around in. But it also had a hideous glass-door bathtub in the guest bath. Now, I have a love-hate relationship with glass-door bathtubs: I love to tear them down because I hate them so much. They make me feel claustrophobic, they just always look tacky, and for reasons I can’t figure out, I trip on the bottom door track all the time when I’m getting in or out. Its literally a half-inch more off the tub rim, but I trip on them constantly. “Grace” is not my middle name.

So after being in his house for all of a day (and tripping once), I asked Colton just how in love he was with his glass doors, and if he wasn’t that in love with them, could I remove them? I think Colton thought I was kidding, but my mom chimed in that she and I could take on that project, if he wanted us to. Colton, who at that point knew that we had to entertain ourselves somehow for eight days, made the serious mistake of saying “Sure,” when I’m sure he thought we were just kidding.

But we were not. After Lowe’s trip number one for supplies and a new shower curtain, I was armed with a putty knife, a screwdriver, and my mom to help lift the doors off. It is surprisingly easy to get rid of glass shower doors: just remove the doors, lift off the top bar, unscrew the side bars from the tub, slice through the silicon seals, and then it’s really just a push and pull game until all the tracks come off. In no time, you’ve made your bathroom looks 100 percent updated, and people like me are 50 percent less likely to trip after their shower.

Now at this point, I thought I had done my part to beautify my brother’s new home. We spent the evening talking about the new shower while we decorated his new Christmas Tree (we kind of smushed all the big holidays togethers on this trip, so Hallow-Thanks-Mas was a true thing for the Ransons). And my mom, while helping my niece hang up a Star Wars ornament she loved because she enjoys dancing to the “Death March,” says “I’ll bet Ceason and I could take down that ugly wallpaper in the bathroom too.” And my brother, who still didn’t know how to entertain us for a week, said “If you want to.”

So armed with one viewing of a ten minute YouTube Video, it was back to Lowe’s for trip number three (what was the second trip, you ask? I sent my brother back to Lowes for Christmas lights, because he and my mother both thought three strands of 100 count twinkle lights was going to cover a seven-foot tree. Yes, I’m rolling my eyes too), where we loaded up on what we hoped was what we’d need to remove a bathroom’s worth of gaudy black and cream wallpaper.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical: what I saw was my mom and I trying to take down wallpaper for the entire trip, eventually giving up and leaving town, with my brother’s bathroom in shambles. But we got lucky, because the previous homeowners were apparently the laziest wallpaperers ever (not kidding: one of the wallpaper boarders was attached to the stucco walls with pushpins. I mean, I’m a not-great home maintenance person, but that’s next level lazy). So not only did the paper rip off the walls with ease, the stucco made it easy to scrape off the softened paper without gouging out the paint. And that’s how Mom and I spent the third and fourth days of vacation: her on the ladder, scraping wallpaper, and me on the floor, picking wallpaper bits out of my hair while contorting myself to scrape the paper out from behind the toilet (and some still lives there, but only because I convinced my mother no amount of YouTube videos was going to prepare us for removing a toilet just to get at wallpaper).

But you know what? When it was all said and done (and after one more Lowe’s trip), and we were looking at an updated bathroom, I was glad that we’d spent that time working out our inner Bob the Builders. Not just because we needed something to occupy ourselves while my brother and Mel went to work, and my niece took her afternoon nap, but because when you can’t see people as often as you’d like, you want to do something nice for them in person when you can. My brother and sister- in- law were so grateful for the bathroom transformation (or else they are just super polite), and we could leave California knowing we helped make their new home a little more homey. Especially since it’ll most likely be another year before we see them in person again.

Look, if anything has been hard this year, it’s been the amount of family separations that have happened because of COVID, so when you have the chance to safely visit people you love, do it, and don’t spend that time trying to cram in a million meaningless activities just to convince yourself you’re getting the most out of your vacation. Instead, spend that time doing the little things you enjoy in each other’s company. Eat dinner together. Take a few walks to the peacock park. Dip your feet in the baby pool and let your niece squirt you till she giggles uncontrollably. Read aloud bedtime stories. Don’t feel the need to remodel a bathroom (unless they have tacky glass doors), but do something nice for the people you love so that you’ve left a little memory of yourself for them until the next time. Because the next time might be a very long time away.

And for heaven's sake: get more than three boxes of Christmas lights for your tree on the first Lowe’s trip. Family doesn’t let family skimp on Christmas lights.