* both the trip and the length of this post…
It started out so simply: a family gathering for Bill’s birthday, a weekend spent together – which is, in and of itself, a revered once-a-year occurrence. When Mary (my stepmother-in-law) upped the ante by saying she’d envisioned a weekend of games, Minute to Win It style — an all-ages tournament complete with prizes and, surely, plenty of opportunity for embarrassment and hilarity — we were even more stoked. If there’s anything this bunch does well, it’s competition and laughter. Bring it ON.
The end of school is always bittersweet for Ella and Annie, so this trip provided a welcome distraction from their sadness. We arrived at O’Hare on Friday morning with no trouble and began to get even more excited that we’d totally be Brady Bunch-ing out soon.
Four hours later, after our layover was “extended” by two hours due to weather-related issues and my sister-in-law called to say she was ill and her family wouldn’t be coming, Nick and I turned to one another as we sat for 60 minutes on the runway and wondered aloud if this trip was cursed.
By the time we arrived in Minnesota, ravenous and grumpy, we told ourselves that surely things would be superb from here on out. His sister was feeling better and, happily, they were coming after all, so Nick and I hightailed it to Target to purchase a gift for our nephew, who’d turned three the day before. (We’d already sent him his “real” birthday gifts, but a family celebration had been planned for the following day, and we wanted to be sure he wasn’t empty-handed.) While I perused the aisles of Target that were clearly marked Appropriate Kid Stuff Available Here, Nick perused the automotive and camping aisles, which were clearly marked Stuff Appropriate Only For Grown-Ups, where he found a little red lantern that he insisted our nephew would enjoy. I tried to talk him out of it — some bubbles? Color Wonder markers? A puzzle? — but Nick was adamant that our nephew would get a kick out of turning the light on and off. I skeptically put it in the cart and remained ready to explain, when the time arose, that this was all Nick’s fault.
We returned to the house in time for a delicious dinner and proceeded to get dressed for a birthday performance we’d planned for the night. All started out beautifully… Then the storm came. And the power left. And suddenly, the weekend seemed less The Brady Bunch and more Little House on the Prairie.
After procuring some candles, we tucked the girls into the truly fantastic new bunk beds that Grandpa Bill and GranMary had gotten for them, finished the performance, and went to the airport to get Nick’s sister and her family. The drive was dark and
terrifying exciting, having to dodge the literally dozens of live power lines and downed trees that had been uprooted in the absurd winds and 2.5 inches of rain that fell in less than an hour, but we got them and made it back safely, only to discover that the candles we were using wouldn’t quite cut it, because a) wax drips, and b) three year-olds and fire don’t mix well. We did, however, have a brand-new lantern… so we stole it right out of the birthday gift bag (tag still on to preserve its not-used status) and turned that sucker on. Let there be light!
Alas, no lantern in our bedroom, but I think Laura Ingalls would have approved.
I awoke on Saturday morning feeling filthy, and not in a good way. Despite sleeping as close to the open window as humanly possible, it was still hot and so humid, you could practically hold the air in your hands, and the “sleep” I’d gotten had been fitful and sweaty. I also hadn’t showered in two full days (and, in that time, had mowed the lawn and traveled for 11 hours), so I desperately needed to get clean. After overhearing a brief discussion the night before on whether or not we still had hot water after the power had gone out (the verdict at the time: there would be some hot water for a short while), I decided that I didn’t want to waste the precious little we still had, so, as Little House on the Prairie gave way to Survivor, I cleaned myself up using water so freezing, it would surely be illegal in most countries.
After a quick trip to the store for some absolute necessities (ice, bagels, and – most of all – coffee, duh), the adults filled coolers with items from the refrigerator while Ella and Annie met their baby cousin and played with his brother. We discussed the possibility of playing some of the games that Mary had so thoughtfully planned and prepared, deciding that we’d begin the official festivities after lunch.
Feeling mighty proud of themselves while holding the baby for the first time.
Thank God for windows with lovely natural light…
Enjoying the most awesome playhouse ever.
Nick’s other sister (who lives locally) and her best friend arrived shortly after noon, bringing with them not only lunch but a gluten-free slice of cake for me to enjoy while everyone else devoured birthday cake later on. Additionally, they brought four entire containers’ worth of gluten-free goodies — brownies, cookies, spice bars — treats so delicious-looking, I’d have endured several more glacial showers just to show my appreciation. Mercifully, a thank you sufficed, and after lunch, we were ready for the games to begin!
Except… it was nap time, both for the wee ones and the
old wise leader of our tribe… And so we took Ella and Annie bowling (electricity AND air conditioning, hallelujah!).
Jambi approves of Cosmic Bowling.
Returning home, we found… everyone still asleep and the power very much still off. And, as her awesome activities sat idle and the weekend continued to careen off the rails, I’m pretty sure that Mary started utilizing calming breathing techniques. This was not what we’d planned, damn it! Right about then, my sister-in-law returned from a run, dripping with sweat, and declared she needed a shower. I was about to warn her that doing so might cause frostbite when we learned that, actually, the water heater wasn’t affected by the power outage. Meaning we’d had hot water all along.
As a toddler, stomping feet and screaming are acceptable responses when things really don’t go your way, but, to my dismay, such tantrums become far less okay if you’re thirty- or sixty-something. Drinking lukewarm beer, however, is always appropriate.
We took the girls down the road to a nearby lake, where they splashed happily and played in the sand. Once the nappers had awakened, they joined us at the beach. We agreed that dinner back at the dark, sauna-like house wasn’t terribly desirable and elected to have a pizza picnic and birthday celebration by the lakeshore instead. I returned to the kitchen briefly to bring back some paper plates and other needed accoutrements and decided to grab the refreshing-looking watermelon on the counter. Pizza, cake, and watermelon on a hot summer night? Perfect, no?
Well, actually, no. When I mentioned the possibility of consuming it right then and there, Mary was visibly stricken. Apparently, the melon was being saved as part of the Minute to Win It games and, so help us God, something would go as planned this weekend and we would be playing those games!! (Except she didn’t freak out on me at all; exclamation points are mine because, if I’d been in her shoes, I’d have just about lost my mind.)
Good photo? No.
Until you notice Bill’s adorable blond ponytail.
The pizza hit the spot (best GF pizza I’ve eaten – word!) and the birthday cake was divine (or so I’m told; I was giddily stuffing one of my sister-in-law’s fabulous gluten-free treats into my mouth). The treat was so good, I’ll even concede that Nick’s idea was fantastic: our nephew was, indeed, ecstatic to open his new-to-him lantern.
Yes, the candles blew out early – 24 hours after the storm, it was still crazy windy.
As the meal was winding down, we decided to introduce my nephew to his first game of telephone, with the rest of us passing simple one- and two-word phrases down the line: Swimming. Happy Birthday. Ice cream. Then it was one of my girl’s turns to start the chain, and we all dutifully passed on the word until my brother-in-law caught Mary by surprise, turning to her and whispering, “Watermelon.” Her face registered an odd combination of confusion, frustration, and what might be categorized as rage, as she clearly had not realized that we were still playing telephone – and thought, instead, that he was asking her if we could eat the fruit.
We’ve been through this already, people!! How many times do I have to tell you that the watermelon is being saved? For the games! FOR THE GAMES THAT WE WILL HAVE, I SWEAR IT, THERE WILL BE GAMES!!!
After the kids went to bed, we stayed up to play our favorite cut-throat card game, Hand and Foot (with Nick and me both on teams that lost spectacularly), and then headed to sleep ourselves. Or, at least, we tried to sleep, but between the heat and the deafening thunderstorms that caused me to awaken levitating – not one part of my body was touching the bed – it wasn’t the most restful night.
Nick and I were the morning’s designated coffee-runners, and we were surprised to see — two days later, in the daylight — just how much damage had been wrought all around us. As we groggily stood in line waiting for our to-go coffee box (the barista had taken one look at us and simply said, “No power?”), I asked if he’d “ever lived through” a power outage like this. Nick barely stifled his delirious laughter, because although I meant, Have you ever been with a dozen people in one house for what was supposed to be this special weekend with 80-degree temperatures and no power for 48 hours?, it came out sounding more like Have you ever lived through a famine and a plague of locusts while asking for asylum as you flee a war-torn country. Ah, first-world problems. Reality check accomplished.
Notice the power pole hanging diagonally over the street…
After a candlelit breakfast (watermelon, anyone?), we agreed that the time had come: we would play games, and they would be awesome.
And, in fact, they were. Mary’s careful research and preparation meant that the games were totally ready to go; all we needed to do was show up (and I mean that both literally and in the sports metaphor way – clever, no?).
Tossing marshmallows through a hula hoop.
Which seems easy until they hit the wet ground, become soggy, and congeal together so that you’re forced to throw a softball-sized marshmallow.
Bouncing ping-pong balls into cups filled with water. Not to brag, but I totally won this one.
See, kids! You don’t have to drink your way through college to dominate at Beer Pong!
Distance bubble blowing.
Which we would have nailed, if the gale force winds hadn’t been blowing at us.
Also, please ignore my Cowardly Lion mane; no power and natural curl result in some interesting ‘dos.
When the festivities were over, it was time for lunch, and Nick suggested that we order some sandwiches. Right before he and his sister left to pick them up, he announced that he couldn’t find the rental car keys — which seemed impossible, because he and I had driven home from getting coffee that morning and no one had left the property since then. After a brief search, we decided that surely they’d turn up any minute now – but we were so hungry, we might crack open the watermelon, so procuring lunch needed to take priority. As we divvied things up, everyone began hungrily digging in… Except Nick. Because, despite his being the one to suggest them in the first place, we’d neglected to actually order him a sandwich. It just wasn’t there.
And neither were the keys.
Hours later, we finally paused our search for the entire crew to go bowling – another of the originally scheduled tournament games – and reveled again in the air conditioning and light.
Cosmic bowling is less mysterious when it’s fully lit…
With bowling complete, as we pulled into the driveway, we noticed that the outside lights were on: the power had been restored!! And, with it, our spirits — and our resolve to find the keys. Despite combing through virtually every inch of the house, the yard, the garage, the trash, and our suitcases, however, and despite my insistence that it was, technically, impossible for them to be gone, the keys remained missing. This is definitely not what we’d planned, damn it! Nick and I may have thrown actual tantrums, but the fact remained: the keys were lost. Meaning that a 6 a.m. tow to the rental car repair lot was in our future for Monday morning, which is so totally what you want to be doing on your vacation.
As it turned out, Bill accompanied Nick and the tow truck to the lot (where Nick was informed that he didn’t even need to be there in person, which made him super happy), and I took a shower. A nice, un-freezing shower. We played one final game before divvying the prizes that Mary had stashed away — at last, something had gone as planned.
Balancing M&Ms on straws stuck in a raw baking potato. (What, you don’t do this at home?) Again, not to brag… But I won this one, too.
And we never did get around to the watermelon game.
We said our goodbyes, joking about how we would never, ever, ever forget this weekend, as his sister and her family flew home and Nick, the girls, and I went on to visit my mother-in-law and stepfather-in-law for the afternoon. Bill and Mary drove us to the Mall of America, a relatively central location, where we transferred our gear from their car to Karen and Ray’s and then hit up a few MOA amusement park rides.
No, they didn’t ride this one…
I tried to get them to pose with SpongeBob, but they wouldn’t have it.
The remainder of our visit with them was delightful – so delightful, in fact, we felt assured that our traveling curse had ended.
My mother-in-law sewed them dresses. On the spot, just like that.
Modestly modeling their new duds.
Rehashing their performance from the other night…
One last story before bedtime.
And then we tried to get home.
Twenty-one hours later, at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, we pulled into our driveway, feeling less Survivor and more Walking Dead. Zombified, we immediately fell asleep, vowing to do nothing on Wednesday but try to become human again.
Two days later, having had the chance to reflect on the trip, I can definitely see that it was not without its advantages. For one thing, I learned how to use the commode in total, astounding blackness, a skill that could be useful someday, especially in the event of a real zombie apocalypse. I also discovered that, unlike I’d previously thought, I will not keel over and die if my children don’t brush their hair, although I might experience a few slight body convulsions.
An added bonus to living without power for a couple of days is that it gives you the perfect excuse to offer up absurdly stupid excuses. Mismatched shoes? Couldn’t see. The kids subsisting almost entirely on soda, strawberries, and birthday cake? No way to properly cook a meal. Single-handedly consuming fifteen (yes, I counted) gluten-free goodies that my sister-in-law had so generously purchased for me? Without refrigeration, they wouldn’t last anyway, and I do hate to let things go to waste.
Most of all, though, this trip reaffirmed what I already knew: that my in-laws are fantastic. Throughout everything, no one lost their temper (except those under the age of five, but they got a pass). At each turn, with each this cannot possibly be happening, the gasps of disbelief would be followed by repressed giggles that gave way to peals of laughter, not only because it was better laughing than crying, but simply because they’re incredible folks and we crack one another up. The entire experience, simply put, was epic.
No, it wasn’t what we wanted. This was definitely not what we’d planned. Damn it. And that was hard, in part because it’s always difficult letting go of long-held expectations and hopes, but also because, as adults, you understand the importance of making your time with loved ones count, especially when they live across the country. As parents, Nick and I tell our girls not to dwell on the negative, not to focus on their disappointments – but instead that it’s okay to grieve for what could have been, to then acknowledge what actually is, and to pick themselves up and move forward. Easy to say; not so easy to do.
Nonetheless, my in-laws — no, my family — and I took that advice to heart, coming to terms with how the reality of the weekend diverged from our fantasy of the weekend, shedding a few tears, and then dissolving into laughter as we moved forward. I’d be totally lying if I said we didn’t complain — because, oh, did we bitch and moan maybe literally beat our heads against walls and tables — but it was always done with the understanding that this was simply the way it was, and it would be okay. In fact, it would be good. Not so much because we’d “make the best of it,” but because it already was the best of it — just being together.
They say that when you marry someone, you marry their family. I can easily say that I married very, very well.
We are getting together again in August, and I can hardly wait. I’ll be bringing my sense of humor.
And a generator.
And definitely a watermelon.
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