On New Year’s Eve our family celebrated our eighth Festibond, an annual tradition we created and have absolutely loved every year. It has been altered and added to, but at the core of Festibond is strengthening our family bonds, individually and as a whole. This includes the writing of personal, heartfelt letters to each other in the weeks before and reading them to each other on the day of Festibond.
This past year has been especially challenging for all of us. I have spent 6 1/2 months of it away–In Alaska (with Kathy, Brent’s mom) and Illinois (with my parents). I realized I needed to be away to work through many issues and stressors with which I have been dealing, mostly resulting from my medical illnesses. I enjoy and treasure the time I have with my mom and dad, and with my sisters, Amy and Sara (and their families). And they have all been so good to me. But I have missed Brent and the girls tremendously, and it has been very difficult for me to be away from them for so much time. I keep in constant contact with each of them via text, phone, and FaceTime. I am very thankful for FaceTime and the opportunity to communicate with Brent, Skye, Jenna, and Hayley face-to-face. It’s wonderful to hear their voices, see their expressions and gestures with which I am so familiar. We sang, danced, played games, made silly faces, cooked together, and had our “family night”…all via FaceTime. :)
When Brent told me that he was thinking about driving out with the girls to visit me for Festibond, I was elated! I looked around at hotels in the area in order to find a nice, comfortable place for us to stay together for the three days and nights they would be here. About three years ago we began booking a hotel for the night of Festibond, the requirement being that it included an indoor pool. I was satisfied with the Hampton Inn in Forsyth, but my mom recommended that I check out the Residence Inn by Marriott. She said it was just built in the past few months and looked really nice. I was a bit skeptical about the financial cost of “nice,” but I decided to check it out. It certainly was nice. It had a basketball court out front, and the foyer was lovely and very modern. Chet, the sales representative at the front desk, was very personable as he offered to show us around the hotel. I’d never been to a Residence Inn, and realized the name was appropriate. All the rooms had a full kitchen (though only the 2-bedroom rooms included an oven). The rooms were spacious, a laundry facility was on site, and we could fill out a shopping list for hotel staff to pick up groceries for us. I decided the studio room was plenty of space for us, and it cost the same as a standard room at the Hampton! #win!
The morning of December 30, I eagerly waited for Brent to inform me that he and the girls were getting close to the Cracker Barrel in Forsyth where we planned to meet and have breakfast. On the drive down I felt giddy with excitement, as well as a little nervous. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I would have after being away for so long, and knowing the girls were apprehensive as well. I walked into the gift shop area of the restaurant to see Skye and Hayley standing at the entrance. My heart exploded as I hugged them each very tightly, never wanting to let go. I then turned to see Brent and Jenna standing off to the side–Jenna looking simultaneously bashful and excited. She patted my head as she often does–somehow my curly, fuzzy hair incites in her an urge to touch it. I enveloped them both in tight hugs, feeling overwhelmed by my emotions. I cannot adequately describe how wonderful and intense this moment was for me. I was so happy to see my amazing family again, even if only for a few days.
The food itself wasn’t that great, but the place wasn’t too crowded or loud, so we could enjoy our conversation. Our waitress was a little uncertain at first about Brent giving her a hard time as to whether there were actually real Maine blueberries in the pancakes as advertised. He mentioned to her that he lives in Maine, and he couldn’t be fooled by blueberries grown out of state. It turned out they weren’t actually from Maine, but a variety of blueberries similar to those grown in Maine. I think Hayley and Skye enjoyed their blueberry pancakes, regardless of where the blueberries originated. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with my little family. I savored every minute as I listened to each of the girls and Brent share their thoughts and talk about their adventures, watched them interact with each other, took in their facial expressions and mannerisms unique to each of them, and laughed with them about all manner of things.
Following breakfast we made a stop at the grocery store to purchase some things for Festibond the next day. Hayley and I planned ahead of time that we would bake something together at my parents’ house, and decided on our somewhat time-consuming but fun and delicious triple-chocolate cookies. Brent suggested we also have my ten-layer nacho dip to snack on as well, so we purchased all the necessary ingredients. We were very pleased to discover that we could check into our hotel several hours early, so we dropped off some luggage and groceries in our room. Everyone seemed to be quite impressed and happy with the hotel and our room. After settling in a little, I headed up to Maroa to my parents’ house with the girls while Brent stayed at the hotel to have a nap and work on his Festibond letters he hadn’t finished yet. I knew he had to be exhausted after the 20-hour drive with no overnight stop.
Mom and Dad were thrilled to see their granddaughters again, as it has been several years between their visits to Maine. The girls haven’t been to Illinois since we lived in Kansas over 8 1/2 years ago. So they had never met several of their cousins, and hardly remember any of them they did meet when they were very young. Skye, Jenna, and Hayley were all understandably apprehensive about seeing and meeting their cousins, but excited at the same time. My two sisters who live in the area, Amy and Sara, each have five kids. They are all younger then my girls except Amy’s daughter Isabelle (between Skye’s and Jenna’s ages) and her son Caleb (same age as Hayley), as well as Spencer (Sara’s son who is also Hayley’s age). The girls, however, seemed to connect with their cousins pretty quickly and enjoyed getting to know them. I wasn’t surprised to see Skye immediately smitten by baby Brig (Sara’s 18-month-old son). Jenna became a fast friend to Sara’s little four-year-old Evey, who seemed to be Jenna’s little shadow. Hayley and Olivia (Amy’s daughter who is two years younger than Hayley) hit it off, and prepared and performed a little skit for the rest of us.
Skye, Jenna, and Hayley sat down at the kitchen table with Isabelle, Caleb, and Spencer to play the board game “Clue.” They really seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I enjoyed watching them play, strategize, and joke around with each other. I think my girls were all quite entertained by the goofy antics of their cousins. What can I say…it runs in the family. ;) After another game of Clue with “Aunt Amy” joining in, Hayley and I decided to start on our cookie baking. Her cousins Nora (11) and Saucy (10) asked if they could bake with us, and Hayley obliged. Hayley seemed to be a little stressed after a while though, with so many cooks and people in the kitchen. She does like to take charge and have everything done just perfectly when it comes to baking and decorating. It was just as well that we didn’t get to the complicated part of dipping the baked cookies in chocolate layers while we were there. It’s something we could do later at the hotel–just the two of us.
Brent showed up just before we finished baking. He and I had planned on going out on a date that night, and for the girls to spend that first night over at their grandparents’ house. Normally our Festibond encompasses a couple of weeks in which Brent and I each take each of the girls out on individual dates, and he and I go out on a date as well. Obviously this year it wasn’t possible to include all the dates, but Brent and I felt that the two of us needed that one-on-one time. We drove to Forsyth, and after discovering Texas Roadhouse was excessively busy, we went to O’Charley’s for dinner. It was pretty good, and I enjoyed having that time and good conversation with Brent. We watched “Daddy’s Home,” a comedy about a biological father and stepdad competing for affection. It was funny and pretty silly, as is always the case for a film starring Will Ferrell. It was really nice just spending time together at the hotel as well. I had an amazing night and a wonderful time with Brent, which was much needed.
The morning of the 31st, our official day of Festibond, Brent and I drove back up to my parents’ house to pick up the girls. Hayley quickly helped me make the nacho dip there, as I realized I needed an oven to bake it. The five of us then headed out for our Festibond breakfast, which we do every year. With limited options for restaurant breakfast in the Decatur area, we decided on iHop. It isn’t a place I would normally choose, but the girls had never been, and the food turned out to be pretty good. I enjoyed my chicken florentine crepe with hollandaise sauce. Once again, Brent hassled the waitress about the origin of the blueberries in the pancakes and toppings. Makita, our waitress, was easy going and spunky; and she joked with us right back.
Last year on Festibond we stayed at a hotel that offered unlimited vending services. The girls loved it, and they were frequently making trips to the vending machine to get snacks and candy simply by entering a special code into the keypad of the machine. This year Brent thought it would be fun for them to each pick out all the treats they wanted at the local convenience store to bring back to the hotel room. I think he was also interested in the psychology aspect: what and how much they would select if they were to get it all at once for the whole day, versus getting one or two things at a time throughout the day. It seemed like a lot of junk food to me when I saw their purchases, but I’m pretty sure the quantity would have been higher at the end of the day had they been making smaller, yet multiple selections. I later discovered that Hayley purposely picked out more than she planned to eat that day, and was saving some for the future. I have to admit that was pretty strategic of her. Haha!
Another activity we added to our Festibond tradition the past few years is to purchase a large puzzle and put it together at the hotel. We work on it throughout the day, and into the next day. This time Brent decided to make it more challenging: He purchased a 1000-piece puzzle, took all the pieces out of the box, and put them into a Ziplock baggie. He allowed Jenna to look at the picture on the box before discarding it so that she could coach us on where general colors were located–from what she could remember. So the rest of us had never seen the picture of the finished puzzle, nor had any idea what it even was. I enjoyed trying to figure it out with the girls, and the cognitive challenge that it was. Eventually Brent confessed that he’d taken a picture of the box with his iPhone, and he showed us the picture in brief intervals. We didn’t end up finishing the waterfall puzzle, but I think I would like to do it the same way again next year.
We always include playing family games on Festibond. I discovered a new game, “Game of Things,” that I really like. I started playing it at my sister Amy’s house, and immediately thought it would be really fun to play with Brent and the girls. I ended up buying the game so that we could play it on Festibond, and then have it for the future. I especially enjoy games that require creativity, explore relationships and knowledge about the other players, and result in a lot of laughter. The Game of Things does just that. One player reads a “things” card that posits a hypothetical situation, and each player secretly writes down their response to the situation. Then everyone has to guess which player wrote what response. During our game one of the cards read: “Things you would like to see explode:”. Out of all the things that could explode in the world, Brent and I wrote down the exact same thing: “Donald Trump’s Head.” Crazy! We’re so on the same wave length. ;) After a few rounds the girls got very strategic, and begin writing down responses that they expected someone else in the game to say. Jenna ended up winning the game by far. She has always been very good at reading people. I enjoyed our game very much.
Hayley and I pulled out our cookies to dip them in the three different chocolates: white, milk, and dark. I melted the chocolate, and Hayley dipped them. Between each chocolate dipping the cookies had to be cooled on a tray in the refrigerator so the chocolate would be set up, and thus not mix in with the next chocolate layer. They turned out very nicely (Hayley is a pro). Brent was happy to use his new knives (chef knife I ordered for him, and paring knife my mom gave him) to chop up the Hickory Farms beef stick, cheese, and vegetables for our snacks. We had a nice spread, and I was really happy to have the kitchen this year.
Obviously we had to take advantage of the swimming pool at the hotel. Hayley has always been especially eager to go in the pool when she has the opportunity. Skye, Hayley and I put on our suits, and Brent and Jenna came down with us to watch and hang out nearby. We were surprised to see so many people–especially kids–in the pool area. The Residence Inn is primarily used by business travelers for long periods of time, and they rarely have families stay. The growing number of kids getting into the pool discouraged Hayley from going in. The three of us sat in the jacuzzi hot tub for a while, which was nice. I always enjoy it; I consider myself very cold intolerant, and I find the heat very therapeutic.
After cleaning up, drying off, snacking some more, and working on the puzzle, it was getting pretty late. We hadn’t yet read our Festibond letters, and decided it would be better to read them the next morning when we were fresh and well-rested. With it being New Year’s Eve, we toasted to the new year of 2016 as well as to each other and our wonderful family. It was pink moscato champagne for me, bourbon for Brent, and Martinelli’s sparkling cider for the girls. We all welcomed in the Maine new year, but Brent was sound asleep about 15 minutes before the Illinois new year approached. NBD…the new year is here regardless of who witnessed its arrival.
In the morning we wandered down to the lobby to test out the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. We were presented with a variety of choices. I think the girls especially enjoyed the make-your-own waffle station with a variety of toppings to choose from. The food was pretty good, and I liked that we had glass dishes rather than the usual paper and plastic ware usually one would normally be limited to with a complimentary breakfast. They actually did offer some plastic cups in addition to the glass though. When Skye saw that a few of us were using plastic cups she was quite dismayed, and she reprimanded us for aiding in the destruction of the environment and negatively impacting the lives of our sea and ocean creatures. Those of you who aren’t aware, Skye is passionate about the state of the environment, particularly about the ocean and ocean life. I love that she inspires me to be more conscientious about such things.
We decided to take a chance at the pool again, hoping it wouldn’t be so crowded. Brent and Hayley suited up while Jenna, Skye and I planned on sitting at the side and watching. Skye and I didn’t go down with the others right away, but got caught up in listening to music. Skye was sharing with me some of her favorite songs and began dancing to them–you know, as you do when the beat moves you. I enjoyed watching Skye sing and dance without abandon, and it made me think of Mark Twain’s quote, “Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching…” It didn’t take long for me to join in and sing and dance to my heart’s content. Moments like these will forever remain in my memory.
We eventually went down to the pool to meet the others. Hayley and Brent were having a great time together in the pool. Fortunately the pool was nearly empty this time. I was pleased to learn that both the pool and hot tub used a saltwater chlorination system–definitely better than the traditional chlorine system.
After the pool we decided it was a good time to sit down together and read our Festibond letters to each other–our favorite part of Festibond. Jenna started out reading the letters she wrote to each member of the family, each letter followed by a hug between her and the recipient of her letter. I could feel the sincerity and thoughtfulness in her words, and each letter touched me deeply–especially the one she wrote to me. Hayley then read her letters to each family member, followed by myself, Brent, and then Skye. Likewise, I felt moved by letters thoughtfully written by each of them. The feelings of deep love and connection I had for and with each member of my family are immeasurable. As I have been home only one and a half months out of the past eight, I wasn’t sure at first if I would have very much to write in my Festibond letters. However as soon as I began writing, my thoughts seemed endless with every letter I wrote. Even separated geographically for so long from Brent and the girls, I had so much to say about and to each of them. It is interesting to me how very different each of us are in regard to expressing our feelings, the meaning we attach to particular moments, or our perceptions of the same experience. Yet when it comes down to it, we are on the same page; we value each other and our family unit. We love and support each other, and we treasure our time together. I know that I do.
Following the letter reading we prepared to drive up to my parents’ house. The Maxeys and Sterlings were planning to be up there again so that we could all spend some more time together. On the way to Maroa we stopped by the Old Book Barn. I’d told the girls about it: My dad started the book store in an old barn on some farm property where we lived while I was growing up. He then moved it to a large warehouse in town (Forsyth), as the business was growing too large for the barn. I shared with Brent and the girls my experiences working there with my sisters for my dad for so many years. The girls were intrigued and asked if we could stop. Several years ago my dad sold The Old Book Barn to his former employee, Cheryl. She and Chris (another of his former employees who had also been my speech teacher in grade school) both happened to be there when we walked in. The girls were enamored by the huge selection and impressive decorative and orderly layout. Over the years they’ve added some non-book items in their inventory (some my dad brings in to sell). After wandering through the large building and scouring through all the books, we ended up with one purchase: Jenna picked out some earrings. Chris said to Jenna “You looked through this huge bookstore, and all you’re buying is a pair of earrings?” Jenna shyly confirmed this, while Chris and Cheryl laughed about it.
Shortly after we arrived at the house we agreed that a ping pong tournament was in order. Starting with the youngest people (who were actually old enough to play), we began. The winner would play the next older person, and so on. I felt pretty confident, as I played my dad once since I’ve been here, and he and I had a good competition going. But Sara ended up beating Amy, and Brent beat Sara. That meant I had to play Brent my first game. He’s good, especially with his tennis background on his side. Sadly, my trash talk wasn’t enough to psych him out. We were all delighted to see my mom participate. She was apprehensive about playing Brent…actually just playing, period. But she did quite well. Finally it was between Brent and my dad. It was an exciting game…a “nail biter” which went into “overtime,” as Spencer called it. Brent ended up the ping pong champion. We then continued to have matches with those we hadn’t played against–to make it fair and to prolong the fun.
My dad took us all on a tour of his buildings, including his warehouse of inventory. He has quite an impressive collection of various items on pallets, much of it recently rescued after much flooding a few days prior. I think one of the biggest highlights for everyone was the old abandoned sock factory on the second floor. I had a feeling Skye would especially appreciate it, as she is absolutely fascinated by old abandoned structures and history. Brent appeared to be pretty fascinated by it as well. He’s always interested in technology, both old and new.
I walked into the living room to find a large group of people (15-20) playing the game “Murder.” They were having such a good time that I couldn’t resist joining in. Everyone takes a folded piece of paper from the middle of the circle, and the one person with the “x” on theirs is the murderer. Obviously no one else can know this. Everyone joins hands, hiding them behind their backs so that no one else in the circle can see them. The murderer begins a series of hand squeezing; when someone’s hand is squeezed a certain number of times by the person next to them, they then squeeze the hand of the person on their other side one less squeeze then they received. When a person receives only one squeeze, they are “dead,” and thus must leave the circle. Anyone can make a guess who the murderer is; if the guesser is wrong, they must leave the circle. If they are right, the round is over. When I ended up with the “x,” I had the urge to begin quietly singing “The Hearse Song” –you know, the one that goes “…the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle in your snout..” It just seemed appropriate. What I didn’t figure on was that my singing would deflect any suspicion anyone had toward me, as I couldn’t be both singing and murdering at the same time. I did end up being accused correctly when it was down to me and two others. The first time I was “murdered” I feigned what I thought was a dramatic death. Unfortunately it didn’t go over too well, at least not with Brent. He thought for a moment that I was really having a serious health issue, which I realized was quite possible with my health history and medical conditions. It wasn’t a good idea after all. :(
My mom managed to seat all 21 of us in the kitchen for dinner. It was quite impressive! Dad made his amazing chili; and Mom made a delicious, moist cornbread, as well as spaghetti. It was a nice way to end the day with all the family. Before Brent, the girls, and I left for our last night at the hotel, Sara forced us to pose for pictures. Okay, she didn’t really force us. ;) She really is good about getting photographs of everyone–families, individuals, events–and she’s great about keeping everyone up to date. It’s something I will always appreciate.
I reveled in the company of my little family that night at the hotel as much as I could, knowing they would be leaving the next morning. The love and affection I felt for and from each of the girls and Brent was palpable and incredibly stirring. I was thinking of how very much I wanted to go home with them, and I did not want to say goodbye again. The next morning we packed up our things and then sat down to have breakfast in the lobby area, again compliments of the hotel.
In the parking lot we said our goodbye’s. I hugged Hayley, Jenna, Skye, and Brent–wishing I could hold on to them forever. It was definitely bittersweet. It was difficult to say goodbye, especially after just three days that seemed to fly by so quickly. But those three days with my amazing family were wonderful. I am so happy they came to visit me, and that we could spend our Festibond together! My parents and my sisters have been absolutely wonderful and supportive, and I love them all very dearly. I am happy for the time I have with them. However, I am anxious and eager to return home to Maine; to again be with my three beautiful, precious daughters and my best friend, partner, and love of my life.