You’ve Got Vail


We were no sooner home from Vail Wednesday evening just long enough to peel off long-sleeved shirts and drop suitcases where they’ll no doubt sit unzipped for at least a week (cough*month*cough), and I was already in my office for a quick preservation of what I was feeling before it faded and folded back into cutting sandwiches for school lunches, gathering dropped underwear around the house for another round of laundry, and sifting through the Valupak envelope for coupons I’ll save but never use. From my suitcase, I pulled a Ziplock bag full of Colorado dirt and skinny pine cones I had collected from the creek we walked along last week, and poured it into an empty jar. VAIL, FEBRUARY 2017–I scribbled on a torn piece of paper, attached it to the outside of the jar and placed it on the memory hall of fame shelf in my kitchen where it joins jars of soft white shells from Dash’s first trip to the beach, red clay from the ground outside the sewing co-op in Rwanda, tiny pebbles from our writing retreat in Ojai, piles of coffee-colored snail shells from the Michigan lake where we’ve had so many summer adventures, and other Earth treasures from memories that stood out over the years, needing to be commemorated in driftwood, smooth stones and dirt dug from sacred ground.

And then I clicked around the Internet, collecting the songs we listened to on the trip, ones that will now always remind me of this tiny window in our lives and our family and how grateful I felt last week to be standing under the cold blue sky while the snow fell, surrounded by mountains, watching my kids with their red cheeks and chapped lips take up space in that immense scene–catching flakes on their tongue, forging trails on snowy paths, running back to me to get a glove adjusted, a boot tied, a nose wiped–and feeling so much love and peace and enjoyment for where we are right now. I collected songs just like I did dirt and pine cones and tucked them in a playlist where I can listen to them again when I want to revisit this feeling. I collected “If I Needed You”–the song that made me cry when I heard the musician start singing it as we walked into the old lodge Saturday night on the ranch where we made one of the best family memories ever.

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I tucked in an enchanting country version of “Twinkle Twinkle”–the song he sang for Nella that night–and “Hallelujah,” Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” and, of course, John Denver, because–duh–Rocky Mountain High.

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When friends and I heard Deepak Chopra speak a few weeks ago, he talked about learning to separate ourselves from our experiences by thinking of them as a dream that we had…we wake up to a new day, and yesterday and the things that happened to us were just a dream. I’m not very good at separating myself from anything, so if we’re going to go that route, let’s just say I’m the BFG and I’m trapping my glowing vacation dreams in jars so I can save them and relive them and blow them to my children when they sleep. Because those glumptious phizzwizzards fuel us and remind us of what we seek–togetherness, an acute understanding of our presence in the world, and an appreciation for mountain creeks and beach sunsets and also finding a cool pub with cold beer in a new town. Come on, Deepak, you know that’s important too. Memory hoarder for life, I am. For the record, routine home days and stirring cream into our coffee at the same counter where we begin every morning also reminds us of what we seek–togetherness, an acute understanding of our presence in the world, and an appreciation for a spoon that clinks against your mug like a morning wind chime, good-smelling dish soap, a little granola left in the bottom of the bag and a still-sleepy kid on your hip. Going away to inhale new air, coming home to breathe it out.

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A rambling intro to say…come with me. Come with me to a small ski town nestled at the base of a mountain in a national forest full of magic.

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You don’t need to ski–we didn’t. It is enough simply to stand in that little town and look up; to see what is often viewed as an inconvenience–cold and snow and ice–in its greatest element, in unspeakable beauty that belongs in the world.

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It makes you feel small in the greatest way.

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Brett’s parents know this feeling of small greatness well as they are committed to traveling and drinking up as much as the world has to offer in landscapes and people and experiences. They are good at adding to their own memory jars and have tucked away adventures from Iceland to Africa and invited us to come with them for this one in the mountains.

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They also value family and little moments, and my favorite memories of this trip by far were made in pajamas and fueled not by scenery but by love.

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My kids got to experience the childhood thrills I know growing up in the Midwest–running–breath held, half naked–to feel the snow…

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…and hopping through the steamy cloud above a hot tub to sink in and warm up.

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Sacrificing dry pants to make a snow angel…worth it.

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Testing fresh snow for packability. Too powdery but so pretty.

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Searching for sledding hills and letting the incline from a barely there ditch qualify.

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Kicking snow off boots…

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…and huddling closer to keep warm.

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Vail was the perfect place for following the prescription our family currently needed–adventuring little and resting a lot.

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(Vail Village)

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My three favorite memories from the trip:

1) An evening sleigh ride dinner at 4 Eagle Ranch

…nestled in the little town of Wolcott, just outside of Vail.

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Brett’s parents planned the evening and, let me tell you–for years, I have talked about a hypothetical experience at the top of my bucket list. I dreamed it up in my head and imagined there was a big cozy lodge tucked in the snow in the mountains somewhere, and there was a crackling fire and twinkle lights and music–definitely music–wine, hot cider and family–all of us together. I have described this scene in bucket list conversations, even though I didn’t know where it would happen or if it really existed like I imagined, but when we arrived to the ranch, out there in the middle of the cold nowhere, and walked into the lodge and heard the music and saw the fire crackling, I started to cry. “This is it,” I told Brett. “This is what I have dreamed of for so long.”

“She’s crying,” Brett laughed to his dad.

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It’s the kind of memory my kids will never forget but struggle to recall all the details thirty years from now, retelling the story when a  “Describe a memorable trip from your childhood” card gets pulled from the Table Topics box at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

“Wasn’t there, like, a cat roaming around in the bathroom?” Lainey will ask. “And there was a swing set, right?”

“Oh my God! Yes! Good memory!” I’ll laugh.

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“Dash, do you remember the names of the horses?” I’ll ask. And we’ll all smile because of course he’ll still remember after all those years.

“Nip and Tuck,” he’ll answer.

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And I’ll tear up remembering how little he was–mesmerized by the snow, those horses, hopping around the dance floor under the star lights with his stick horse.

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I’ll remember it like it was yesterday but wonder, as Deepak says, if it was all but a dream.

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And the sleigh ride. Brett’s dad has told us the story of one of his most precious memories with his own beloved grandpa–it was a sleigh ride late at night in the dead of winter. My kids now have their own sleigh ride memory with their grandpa.

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We stayed and danced far past the kids’ bedtimes because every song the musician sang was our favorite song and we didn’t want it to end. And when we finally called it a night, I hugged Brett’s parents, thanked them over and over and then looked back at that little place of magic lit up against the night and whispered my gratitude for what we shared there as we drove away and kids slumped into our laps falling asleep.

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And the takeaway of 4 Eagle Ranch besides–oh, I don’t know, one of the most magical nights of our lives?

A genuine cowboy hat for Brett from their trading post.

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He wore it for the rest of the trip, and now I’m trying to make cowboys hats in the Florida ‘burbs a thing.

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Favorite Memory #2: Nella’s walk.

I now have a sacred memory of a walk with each child far away from home, just me and them, when I felt so connected and in love with the moment that surely the world could end at that very second, and all would be well (Lainey’s was in Chicago, Dash’s–New York City). I had left the house for a long walk alone, and when I returned, Nella was standing by the door all bundled up. “She’s been waiting this whole time,” Brett told me. “She wanted to go with you.”

“I’ll go again,” I said, lacing my boots back up, “Just me and her this time.”

We walked a long ways–way longer than she’ll usually walk without whining or asking to be held–and much of it was uphill, in the cold. She never complained. We held hands, made sled tracks where the trail allowed and threw sticks in the creek and watched them slowly float away.

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We found a deserted playground, rode swings against the wind, watched our breath paint the air and finally trudged back home where she said “I love you Mommy” not once but three times along the way, for no good reason other than we had shared something special.

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And Memory #3: That same walk, that same path, repeated as a family. A bit more complicated with all of us and accompanied by some tears over falling in the snow, cold fingers, who got to ride the sled and “I don’t want to walk anymore,” but so very us, perfect in its own way…and led by the almighty cowbay hat.

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Think you have to be a big skier to have fun in Vail?

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Not if huddling up with family is your thing.

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Our lips are chapped…

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…but our memory jars are full.

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…and a huge thank you to my beloved in-laws who see the beauty past spilled hot chocolate, fighting kids and prolonged fits in the backseat over ill-fitting mittens. xo

Happy Weekending.

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The Art of Being Read To

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This post is sponsored by Audible.

I won’t deny that I became a teacher partly because I wanted to read books aloud to my class. I mean, also so I could write on the chalkboard and decorate bulletin boards and, heavens, let’s not forget about putting stickers on good papers and scribbling stars with red pens. But mostly, so I could read aloud. It’s just that I had studied how teachers read books aloud for so many years and how, if you were good at it, you could bring a story to life by a simple subtle shift in your voice. So, I kept a journal of books I wanted to read aloud to my class someday and put stars by the stories I knew would require all the passion of the read aloud commitment–to make my readers feel the words and feel a part of the story–to perform it well. Years later, during the fifteen minute block after lunch every day, my fifth graders would shuffle back in the classroom–still sweaty from recess–and settle down with their heads in folded arms at their desk and listen while I fulfilled my read aloud dreams, doing my best to bring to life the words of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and the mystery behind Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember.

I still love reading aloud to my own kids, but what I really love these days in the trenches of school schedules and motherhood demands is being read to–taking the role of listener for performances of great stories and books I might not otherwise have the time to read given my “to be read” pile on my nightstand and the slow pace it’s taking me to attack it.

That’s why I love audiobooks. Not only do they allow me to catch up on reading during times I’m not able to hold a book–driving in the car, going for a run, cooking dinner–but they fulfill that need of my inner child–the one that still loves to be read to. Have you heard of Audible? Audible is the leading provider of premium digital spoken audio information and entertainment and offers customers a new way to enrich their lives every day. Audible adds new titles to their catalog every day and has an unmatched selection of audiobooks to choose from from childhood classics to the newest adult reads on bookstore shelves.

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Audible made our summer road trip to Michigan a lot more fun last year  as we listened to Swing Sideways on the way up, and the narrator (Tara Sands) delivered a wonderful theatrical performance of the book that held my kids’ attention much like a movie.

We are currently listening to Audible’s presentation of Harry Potter, and I love the way it’s giving both my kids and me the opportunity to listen together before bed and the riveting presentation (and British accent!) the narrator Jim Dale delivers.

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But my favorite recent audiobook experience has been a revisit to an old favorite, Anne of Green Gables, one of Audible’s star powered listens, read by Rachel McAdams.

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I started it on our trip to Vail, and it’s been the perfect accompaniment to a vacation dedicated to relaxing, nourishing and huddling in. I did take it out with me the other morning though, on a walk alone in the mountains, and let me tell you–the experience was unforgettable. It was as if one of my favorite storybook characters came along with me, and if there’s one person you want to take with you on a winter walk to appreciate the snow-tipped branches and majestic mountains against the cold blue sky, it’s Anne Shirley.

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If you’d like to try Audible and want to download a book you’ve been wanting to read, Audible is giving readers a 30-day trial with a free download. Click here to try it out, browse their incredible collection of titles and see for yourself how good it feels to be read to. Play it in the car, tuck ear buds in your purse so you can listen in waiting rooms, bring your narrator along for evening walks or sneak in a chapter while you’re chopping onions for dinner.

I still love to hold books, follow words and encourage my kids to do the same, but we can read so many more titles with Audible and enjoy the experience of listening and being moved by a great performance of a story. As any kid who’s ever experienced the comfort of falling asleep to their mother’s voice reading Goodnight Moon or Ramona Quimby knows, being read to is one of life’s great pleasures.

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This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Audible. The opinions and text are all mine.

Big City Christmas (One of My Most Favorite Trips Ever)


 Disclaimer: This is a long post. A lot of pictures, a lot of story, a very special trip I’m aching to write about and want to remember. I was going to break it up into a couple of posts and be brief because any guide to “successful blogging” will tell you that. But this one’s for me. Feel free to scroll through quickly and wait for another brief post. Or stay. Bundle up. And come along for a story about a holiday wonderland.


When I was a teenager and my dad came back into my life after many years of being separated, he and Gary took me to Chicago the weekend before Christmas as an early birthday present. We walked the snowy streets together, visited the top of the Sears tower, stood in long lines just to get our hands on hot Garrett popcorn, and huddled up in window seats of little restaurants at night to watch the lights and scenes at dinner. It was magic. We stayed on a high floor in an old hotel–a budget deal but charming, nonetheless–and on our last night there, I climbed up above the heater into the narrow window ledge overlooking the city lights and wrote in my journal about every sight and sound and feeling I experienced that weekend. I remember my dad waking up to find me in the window.

“Aren’t you going to go to bed?” he asked.

“I don’t want it to end,” I answered, a story he now retells when mocking my tendency to go overboard on “seize the day.” For the record, I’m learning the balance of “seize the day” and “end it while it’s good”.

That weekend started a tradition of many trips that followed and planted a seed of an appreciation for Chicago at Christmas that would grow into what it is today–a full blown love affair. My last December trip there was when Brett and I were dating. We went ice skating, drank hot chocolate, took lots of snowy pictures and feck yeah, I came home and spent three hours scrap booking all the memories with overpriced glitter stickers that said dorky things like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Bundle Up.”

Think I’m joking? Look. I found them.

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By the way, I don’t bullshit about important things like scrap booking. I’d also like to note my appreciation for the fact that I took the time to double mount some typed print that said “ICE SKATING” and stick it next to the ice skating pic, lest you not realize that two people with skates on their feet gliding on an ice rink are “ICE SKATING.” I was a very thorough scrap booker, okay?

In the midst of all that holiday magic over the years in that city, I remember one recurring thought, especially watching little girls all bundled up, walking out of American Girl, cradling new dolls*: I can’t wait to be a mom, and I can’t wait to bring my kids here someday at Christmas.

(*Motherhood is not a snow globe scene where everything is so dreamy. But sometimes it is.)

Fast forward to three weeks ago. My sister texted me and my dad that she was going to be in Chicago the weekend of 17th. “I wish so bad we could all be there.”

On a whim, I checked Expedia and there, as if she was waiting for me to come back to her all this time, was Chicago in all her glory, manifested in a crazy cheap ticket price that was practically begging me to book it. Mind you, it was Spirit Bare Fare which is like booking some folding chair seats duct taped to the back of the plane and paying extra per ounce of clothing you’re wearing, but whatever. I would agree to being duct taped–naked–to the outside of the plane to go to Chicago in December.

I asked Brett to go, but he checked the weather and said, “F@#k no. See if your dad wants to go.” Also he had to work.

I had three weeks to plan a 2-day trip to the tundra. Fortunately, we have a lot of clothes for cold weather. I’ve saved everything we’ve bought for a few trips to Michigan when Lainey was little and have picked up a couple more coats from thrift shops, always in the hopes that we’d have another trip someday and I’d be able to say, “Thank God I bought those coats.” As soon as I booked the tickets, I bought some yarn and crocheted each of the kids a scarf for the trip because it’s the only crocheting I know how to do (straight lines!), and I don’t often get the opportunity to pretend I’m a real crocheter.  Also, when my friend in Chicago heard we were coming, she pulled more boots, coats and snow pants, covering every size because she has 4 kids and a lot of hand-me-downs. She also invited us to stay in her city apartment which turned out to be magic. MAGIC, I tell you. As if Kathleen Kelly herself turned over her keys.

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Of course, once we got to Chicago, I wanted to do it ALL. I knew I’d have to pare down my list and enjoy being together more than going, doing, seeing, but I also wanted the kids to experience a nice “sampler platter” of Chicago at Christmas.

My lofty list I knew we’d have to cut down looked like:

  • Ice Skating and Hot Cocoa in Millenium Park
  • Carriage Ride by Water Tower
  • Top of John Hancock Building
  • State Street Macy’s Window Displays
  • Christkindlmarket 
  • Garrett Popcorn
  • Deep Dish Pizza (Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s)
  • Train Ride (there’s also the Polar Express train that leaves from Union Station, but it was all booked up long ago)
  • See decorations in The Drake Hotel or The Peninsula
  • The American Girl Store

I bought tickets online to 360 Chicago (at the top of John Hancock Building), and then left everything else wide open.  I knew it was going to be exceptionally cold, and if we needed to spend most of the weekend huddled somewhere inside, watching it snow from the windows, so be it.

I waited until last minute to surprise the kids. They thought they were headed to school Friday morning. Instead, I told them suitcases were packed and in the car–we were on our way to pick up Poppa, grab breakfast and head to the airport.

The rest was MAGIC. And by magic I mean, of course, with all the expected hassles of taking three kids–one of whom’s name rhymes with CRASH–to a cold big city. Hassles included fits from fingers not going in the right glove holes, not being able to play in the rotating doors for as long as you want, getting help walking across a crazy busy street when you wanted to wander across yourself, not getting to push all the buttons on the elevator and being told you cant get on the escalator backwards. There. I think that about covers it all.

Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.

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I’m sure all the passengers between Dash’s seat (with my dad) and ours appreciated Dash’s constant whack-a-mole pop-ups. “MOM! MOM! MOM!” (insert smile and wave).


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Part of the fun of surprising them was packing an epic travel backpack with a couple new travel games, crayons, books and favorite snacks. We played these games all weekend.

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And then, as we started to descend, you could see it in the window…snow. Piled on rooftops, blanketing fields. We were not cool and calm about it at all. My dad actually pulled out his bluetooth speaker and played White Christmas’ “Snow” for a 19 row stretch of passengers to hear, and it didn’t embarrass me one bit. In fact, I could not stop smiling.

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And when the taxi approaches the city and you can finally see that beautiful skyline? I get butterflies in my stomach for just a tiny second. There she is, the beauty.

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We barely settled in on the first day and as the sun set, it happened…thick flakes started falling fast. “I can’t believe this is happening,” I told my dad.

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One of my very favorite moments from the trip: When the kids were all jammied up, I decided to venture out in the cold to the market to get a few things. Lainey saw me bundling up and asked if she could come too. “It’s going to be super cold, are you sure?”

“I’m positive.”

We walked in the snow–just me and her, stopping so she could kneel down, take her gloves off and feel the snow in her hands. She didn’t complain about the cold once, and I swear under those corner lights, with that snow falling and catching in her hair, with the city swirling around her, she looked prettier than she’s ever looked.

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We walked slow and pointed out every Christmas tree visible from apartment windows. From one window, you could see a whole mess of people laughing.

“Look, Lainey! A Christmas party!”

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We caught snowflakes on our tongue. We slid our boots on slippery spots to pretend we were skating. We bought milk and wine and juice at the most charming market that was, of course, playing the best Christmas music. And then she looked up at me in that snow storm and said, “I feel like we’re in a Christmas movie, Mom,” and I knew I’d remember that moment forever.

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As for Poppa and the littles, turns out they didn’t need the milk and wine.

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This window was definitely a favorite spot.

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And the stoop. It couldn’t have been more picturesque–snow lightly dusted in all the right spots. I mean, come on.

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(This little hat has always been a favorite since Dash wore it as a baby on a trip to Syracuse. We dropped it in Macy’s on the last day, though, and never found it, so boo.)

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Nella took a particular liking to “the man”.

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The city waking up…

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(Big City Rule #124: Visit a church. At least one.)

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Dash would have wandered that city all by himself, no problem, if we let him. He didn’t want to hold hands, he wasn’t overstimulated, he seemed to know where he was going, he owned it. He Kevin McCallistered those streets like it was his job.

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You’re THREE, Dash.

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A definite favorite of the trip: 360 Chicago, the observatory at the top of the John Hancock Building. We were at the door when they opened and for a good hour, there was hardly anyone there but us. There was something so special about nearly having the place to ourselves; being warm, looking out at the city on such a cold day; the Christmas music playing overhead amid the quiet of the scene.

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There’s a little cafe in the corner overlooking Lake Michigan (the entire floor is windows). I was playing with the kids in another corner when my dad hollered, “Kelle! Come here! I got us coffees! With WHISKEY!” And so I ran.

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Tissue please.

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The kids didn’t want to leave, so we just hung out at the top of the city, doing puzzles, drinking coffee and eventually running around and wrestling on the floor (Brett would die).

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I did brave the Tilt experience as well, a set of windows that you position yourself in and then get tilted over the city for downward views. Sweaty palms, man. But I did it.

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American Girl Store. Rite of passage in the city and so much fun, but LORD were there ever a lot of people in there. A lot of bored dads huddling by the doors too.

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For the record, Dash is not taking money in this photo, but putting some in. I clarify because the former was the case with him once.

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We wanted the kids to experience the train. They loved it so much, we sat and relaxed on it, taking it outside the city and then back in, just for fun.

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When in Rome. Giordanos, baby.

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My sister and my cousin–another favorite moment. We had drinks at The Peninsula, and the Christmas vibe was ON POINT. Total Christmas Party Hop.

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The walk back to the apartment that night was so enchanting. Snow falling, people huddled behind windows of cozy taverns in early holiday celebrations. Christmas lights, evergreen garlands, horse and carriages taking night owls back to the their hotels. My sentimental heart beats wildly.

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Our last day…up early so we could drink it all in before we left.

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Nella loved being able to see her breath.

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We spent the last day in the theater district, mainly at Macy’s because it is Christmas wonderland, and the kids didn’t want to leave.

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(Dash is obsessed with my sister. Obsessed, I tell you.)

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There are 8 floors, all connected with escalators that the kids wanted to ride repeatedly. Each floor highlights something different–Santa on 6, Holiday Lane on 7 and The Walnut Room (world famous Chicago restaurant–since 1907!) and the best view to an epic Christmas tree on 8. Holiday Lane was my favorite. That scene in Elf when Buddy stays up all night and creates a Christmas wonderland in the store? This is the store. Holiday Lane is his masterpiece.

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(8th floor tree view, looking down on The Walnut Room.)

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And the window displays. Add Chicago Macy’s Christmas Window Display Decorator to the jobs I’d like to have someday (along with “The Christmas Heloise” Tip Columnist for Village Gazette of a small Stars Hollow-ish town, Hospital Nursery Baby Rocker and Sherwin Williams’ Paint Color Name Colorer).

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Here’s what I have to tell you: Want to do something special with your family next Christmas? Chicago. Even if it’s freezing.

It was magic, a moment in motherhood for me that I will always remember, when all three of my kids were still enraptured by all the imaginative delights of Christmas. When the inconvenience of cold couldn’t hold a flame to the wonder this city offered. When this one could still sit comfortably on my hip and shield her face from the cold in my scarf.

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The last stoop pic before climbing in our Uber to the airport. Dash cried, “But I don’t want to go home.”

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Happy to be warm and home, looking forward to the wonder this week holds, and remembering all the memories.

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And a crappily filmed video (I didn’t video a lot, but there was enough to stash this in our memory archives).

chicago best from ETST on Vimeo.

Now if only we can convince Brett that the cold is worth it to do this trip again someday. After seeing the pictures and hearing our stories, he says “Maybe.” HOPE!