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!

About That Swan: Marco Island Staycation


If you’re planning a trip to the beach with kids, may I highly suggest taking a swan float–the larger the better. You’ll have to blow it up when you get there, of course, but make sure lots of people are watching when you do because seeing a person nearly pass out while taking 30 minutes to inflate a giant swan, one breath into a tiny blow hole at at time, is apparently highly entertaining. As the swan inflates, be sure to hold him as awkwardly as possible while simultaneously blowing and trying to see past his slowly expanding body to watch your kids who will soon be entertained by giant swan for all of sixty seconds before leaving him to somersault in the wind across the beach while you chase him.

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When you ask one of your children to please carry the fully inflated swan back to the hotel, make sure to make it sound like a damn privilege so that your other children suddenly want to be a part of it and mercilessly fight over the job. When onlookers turn their heads to watch said fight, calmly smile and pretend that children scratching each others’ faces off over who gets to carry a giant inflatable swan is NOTHING TO SEE HERE. When entering hotel, choose narrow doorways so that giant swan gets stuck and designated swan-carrying child screams and trout-flops on the lobby floor. Take pictures of screaming child yanking the swan’s neck, attempting to pull him from the door because parents laughing and taking pictures of said scenario does not aggravate frustrated child at all. When entering elevators with giant swan, make sure to choose ones that are already near capacity with other hotel guests. When deciding when to take the swan back out to the beach, consider wind conditions and choose VERY WINDY for the occasion. If, in the case of high winds, swan does a triple axle in the air before blowing away towards the sea at high speed, save yourself the embarrassment and don’t look to see who’s watching. Then walk away, thanking the good Lord it was only $15 and that swan probs will no longer highlight your vacation. When your children point at cartwheeling swan and cry, “MY SWAN! MY SWAN!” for all the beach to hear, tell them you will buy another one even though you have no intention of following through. Try not to notice the hero to your left who is grabbing flippers and a snorkel and running all Hasselhoff into the ocean to save the swan. Laugh when you see the swan somersault away again but maybe stop laughing when it keeps happening and man continues rescue. And then maybe after 15 minutes of watching now barely visible man, start to freak out and summon some other people on the beach to freak out with you. When man finally turns around without the swan, keep an eye on him and root under your breath, “Please make it back, please make it back” because you are somewhat responsible for his life now. When he lifelessly arrives on shore an eternity later, quietly thank him for his valiant effort and promise yourself never to bring a swan to the beach again. And finally, 20 minutes later when jet-skiers come riding up to the beach hugging a giant swan, inquiring who it belongs to, look away and curse while your kids run to retrieve it.

See–all the beach advice you need. You got it here. You’re welcome.

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With that said, we had a school break last week, so I took the kids and a friend of Lainey’s to Marco Island for a few days last week, and we did nothing but swim, scour the beach for treasures and chase the swan. During a time of year when I usually miss the Midwest, there was nowhere I would have rather been than that beach with these kids in this crazy little sliver of life where everything is colorful.

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We watched the sunset every night and stayed on the beach well past dusk while I photographed little cartwheeling silhouettes against the sky.

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We brought home a giant jar of rainbow shells–some of the prettiest we’ve ever collected.

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Heidi joined us on the last day for a big sunny hoorah.

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And little Penny Lane here was in her element.

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A little video of our adventure (see Nella’s dab mid-video):


Enjoying: Last of Michigan


The suitcases are packed, and we’re about ready to say goodbye to Michigan. We’ll slowly make our way home, stopping for a few more adventures with friends and family along the way, but we will be good and ready to reenter our routines when we’re home. It’s been a summer without hustle, the most valuable feeling I’m protecting and taking home with me.

I haven’t done a lot of writing here–pausing the exhale for more inhale. But I’ve read books, taken walks, floated on my back in the lake at high noon, kayaked as the sun sets, sipped my morning coffee from the hammock, held my kid’s hand as she braved her first jump off the dock and driven on long winding roads framed by nothing but cornfields and forests for hours–and  I’d like to think that all equals something, as Extreme would say, More Than Words.

The last of our Michigan adventures enjoyed:

Hartwick Pines State Park
…a majestic sanctuary of trees, many that are fallen providing a natural playground for the kids. We hiked a path that led to a tiny chapel in the woods, and though it was all I could do not to call in a rescue (two of four kids were crying and asking to be held), we found the chapel, arriving at the most magical light and yes, it was worth it.

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Thank God I thought to bring the Boba.

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“I Goin’ to the Yake.”
He likes me to follow several paces behind him to prove he can make his way there all by himself.

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This red barn and field of Queen Anne’s Lace that sang its siren call on our drive the other day.

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Petoskey, Michigan.
…hugs Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay and offers the charm of its historic Gaslight District with shops and restaurants. The kids love the playground at the bay where, if you look closely, you can watch people jumping off the breakwall in the distance, which is apparently a rite of passage for vacationers.

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The Park Dinosaur
May I introduce this T-Rex that was running around the park in Petoskey the other day. No kids’ party. No reason. Just a random guy who got bored Sunday afternoon and decided to turn off Netflix, grab his dino costume and head down to the park to chase kids. Part creepy but mostly hilarious because I don’t think he realized the big kids would chase him with the intention of, what appeared to be, killing him. He was BOOKING it. So much that Nella’s initial cries at spotting him turned into straight-up laughing because yes, watching a T-Rex sprint and weasel through the park with a trail of kids screaming and chasing him is indeed a knee-slapping event.

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3 in Stripes at once.

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Isaac the dinosaur who comes with us everywhere.

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Summer reading.
There’s a stack of old kids’ books from the 70’s at Gary’s family cottage. The Sesame Street one doesn’t have Elmo in it because he wasn’t born yet.

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Not giving a hoot about how filthy they get. I think I’ve washed their hair sll of maybe 4 times on this entire trip.

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Watching my dad love my kids.

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The way-past-bedtime cereal bowl she talks my dad into giving her.

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Switching clothes.
They wear the same size, and I love it.

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The girl who caught 15 fish on her own the other day and now has a slight obsession with fishing.

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Lake swimming.
I love the ocean but don’t have the overwhelming urge to dive in and swim. Here? I want to go under. I want to canon ball off the boat, somersault under the water and swim until I’m too tired to tread water.

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Breakfast bagels in the garden.

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Tucking an entire month of memories with these guys in the books.

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Looking forward to going home and all that the horizon holds.

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