Gail Sotelo remembers looking out of their picture window at the enormous crater her husband was digging in the front lawn, and thinking, "Oh, no."
It was out of her hands, though. Her husband was driven by an idea.
Jim Sotelo had already spent months designing an elaborate 9-11 memorial, to be illuminated at night by dozens of lights, shining through his neighborhood well off the main road in Hollywood.
He just finished the memorial, and it is huge. It stretches across his front lawn, 45 feet wide with a two-foot-deep pond teeming with bright orange koi and other fish. Encircling the memorial are a retaining wall, flagstones, and red, white and purple flowers. (They couldn't find blue.) In the center, a star-shaped base and pedestal of white brick rise from the water, illuminated from within, bearing a fiberglass model of the Statue of Liberty holding her torch more than 14 feet off the ground.
Sotelo said he lost 30 pounds building the monument, working from 7 in the morning until 7 at night every weekend since February to get it done for Memorial Day.
The couple will celebrate -- with all the neighbors and friends who helped -- today at 4 p.m., roasting a pig, cracking blue crabs and setting off fireworks.
At the back of the monument, a tall, blue plastic sign standing between two American flags and decorated with a stern-looking eagle and gold scrolls asks, "Have you forgotten 9-11-2001."
Jim Sotelo will not forget. Not only because New York was the first place that felt like home to him. Not only because Sept. 11 was his mother's birthday, and his wedding day.
Sotelo was 17 when, on a June evening in 1977, he saw his 36-year-old mother shot to death, he said. "That's why I've been working so hard to get this done," he said. "It was June 2, 1977. Next Wednesday will be 27 years."
He was always a mama's boy, said his father, also named Jim Sotelo. The family had moved all over the country for his father's military career, but from the time he was about 10 until his mother died, Sotelo lived in New York, and loved it.
He moved away from the city after her death, going to live with his father, who worked for the Navy in St. Mary's County.
"It hurt him bad when he lost her," his father said.
Jim Sotelo is putting up another plaque that will have his mother's birthday; then "when my world changed," with his wedding date; and "when the whole world changed: 9-11-2001."
One of his neighbors, a welder, made two stainless-steel replicas of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which shimmer in sunlight. Behind the towers, Sotelo laid out a strip of asphalt and toy taxicabs, a hot dog stand and tiny people looking up at the towers.
His dad did the wiring for the memorial, stretching a line from the circuit-breaker box in the house out under the pond -- before they put in the liner and the water -- to light the fountain, the borders and the Statue of Liberty's torch.
Along with the fountain splashing onto the lily pad, Sotelo's memorial has a small remote-controlled boat. It has two waterfalls in the back.
It has a little Empire State Building. It has a miniature Lincoln memorial, with marble steps, wooden molding at the top, plastic wedding-cake columns in front and a ceramic Abraham Lincoln he bought on the Internet. It has -- well, everything.
In a St. Mary's County neighborhood with mostly small, one-story homes that have maybe a flag or a small patch of flowers out front, the monument dwarfs everything. It certainly dwarfs the other decorations in Sotelo's yard -- the wishing well, Uncle Sam and two eagles in the driveway, the plaster boy fishing and assorted gnomes curled up to rest near shrubbery. The basset hounds, running around pens in the back yard and woofing, go nearly unnoticed.
At a time when news coverage in Washington is dominated by the National World War II Memorial just opening, St. Mary's County is buzzing about Sotelo's memorial.
People keep driving by, slowly, down Keith Court where the Sotelos live, a turn or two off of Route 235 and Clover Hill Road, and staring at their yard.
Barbara Grooms, who lives in Hughesville, got a call from a co-worker who said, "Have you seen this house? You've got to go see it.' "
When Grooms saw it, she started to cry. "It made me think of what happened, with 9-11. . . . He put his heart into it, his time and his money. It brought tears to my eyes."
Another co-worker said, " 'Oh, my God, Barbara, it's beautiful. It's breathtaking.' " And a real estate agent told her she had to see it at night.
Gail Sotelo thinks it cost at least $20,000 to build the memorial. "We stopped counting after a while," she said.
Jim Sotelo goes outside to see the lights go on every evening, waiting, watching as they come on one by one and the sky gets darker.
"Every day he says the same thing," Gail Sotelo said: "Come out, come out."
As dusk falls, fireflies come out. The basset hounds bark. Sometimes neighbors come over to see the memorial light up. Jim Sotelo watched the lights come on Wednesday evening, his foot up on the retaining wall of the pond, and said, "This is my little heaven right here."