Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas 2014

Last Christmas I somewhat morosely realized that it was our last "normal" Christmas before our family changed and Rebekah left for college. And though she would come home for the actual holiday, it would be for just a visit. But Rebekah's Christmas break was three full weeks...much longer than I was expecting. So in reality rather than a visit, it just felt like she was home. I tell you what, having all six of us under the same roof for that amount of time was the highlight of Christmas for me. (Probably because now I am somewhat morosely realizing that next Christmas she won't be here even for a visit...just a skype session from wherever she is serving her LDS mission.)

The traditional Christmas jammies and sleeping under the tree...

On the 23rd we had our traditional party and nativity recreation with Bryan's side of the family. Little Samuel Bryan (Kevin and Kari's newest) was born just before Thanksgiving and made the sweetest little baby Jesus. 
And then of course we all thought it was so cute that every single one of us had to get a picture....or ten. (Rebekah was the smart one that got a picture of all the wannabe photographers.)

And then the actual nativity which also included Lilian as Mary, Brandon as a wiseman (with apparent Rastafarian leanings...what's with that hat?) and Julianne as the narrator. Carol convinced all the grandkids to take one last picture, even the older ones who opted out of the nativity this year. The only one missing is Jordan who is on a mission in Indiana.
Have you ever seen such excitement over a jar of nutella? When her grandparents called to ask for Christmas shopping suggestions, I read them Lilian's list...on which was "my very own nutella." Lynn thought it was so funny that along with the stuffed Olaf, he included the nutella.

And as for Brandon...his grandparents decided that being the stuntman that he is and with his amazing sense of balance he'd be the perfect candidate for a unicycle. He and his cousin Aaron (who also got one) spent the next few hours in the basement getting the feel for it. My guess is they'll both be unicycling around all summer long.

On Christmas Eve Bryan and I took the kids to St. Marks Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Salt Lake City for their Christmas mass. At 10:30 there was caroling and then the actual mass started at 11:00. As one who would be happy if Christmas was on Sunday every year, I thoroughly enjoyed the religious services that lead us through midnight and officially brought in Christmas. Along with the caroling there was plenty of music with a choir, organ, brass and drums. "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" was especially memorable, also Handel's "For Unto Us" from the Messiah. Brandon and Lilian didn't make it through, falling asleep on the bench.

We didn't get home until after 1:00AM...but that meant that the kids didn't really wake up till around 10:00 to see what Santa brought. And we woke to find a white Christmas! Considering the temps had been in the low 60s just a week earlier, this was delightful! Snow and sleeping in? It was a Christmas miracle!

The most important thing on Lilian's Christmas list was long silk gloves...heaven knows why. But it was the first thing she would mention when anyone asked what she was hoping Santa would bring her for Christmas. Luckily Santa was able to find a pair for her....she was thrilled, as you can see.

While we had nowhere to be on Christmas Day, we did have a few sets of visitors....Bryan's parents for a few hours in the afternoon and then my parents for Christmas dinner.

On the 27th we attended a Christmas party for my side of the family. This year we decided that we'd have a theme...everyone was to get a book and a favorite treat. For a family that enjoys reading so much, and often to snack while we do so (for some of us at least) it was a fun way to do the gift exchange and brought on lots of book discussion. Kind of like having a Christmas book club meeting as we explained the reasons behind what prompted the specific book choice.
Silly little girly cousins...Allison, Lilian, Abby and Maddy...using their new sheep stuffed animal/pillows as head gear.

I didn't take the Christmas tree down until January 7th...a full week longer than normal for me. And though I made excuses as to why, such as attempting to celebrate Three Kings Day on the 6th or leaving it up longer because we got it up late in the first place (because of our Thanksgiving trip), in all reality it was to do with a more sentimental reason. As long as the tree and the decorations were still up then it was still Christmas. And as long as it was Christmas, Rebekah was still home. Because I started realizing that this was kind of it. Once Rebekah went back to school we'd never have this long with her again. We'll have odds and end weekends, and she'll get a week in March for spring break. But once she finishes finals that last week in April, it'll be a mad dash to sending her off on a mission. She stated her date of availability as May 9th, her 19th birthday. She'll likely leave not till late May or early June but we'll be hard pressed to get her prepped and ready to go. So this Christmas break? I was trying to savor it, I suppose. It was nice to take the tree down and get the house back to normal. I always enjoy the feeling of January and its promise of new beginnings. But oh, it was a little bittersweet this year.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Elf antics

As per Lilian's instructions (because she loves looking back at old pictures of our adventures with Chester the Elf) and so that I don't repeat myself too frequently hiding said elf in future is our most recent Christmas season worth of elf antics.

Chester showed up a few days later than normal because we were late getting going on holiday decor due to our family Cruise/Universal Studios trip. And I think I missed at least one day of documentation. But without further ado...

Day 1: Chester with googly eyes sitting on the kitchen table with a note that he would be "watching" this season.
Day 2: Strung up by the army men.
Day 3: "Do you wanna build a snowman?"
Day 4: Chocolate cravings...

Day 5: Lipstick note on the bathroom mirror (which then traumatized Lilian when she didn't notice him there until she was already in the middle of going potty....caught with her pants down, oops.)
Day 6: Spelling out his name in the hallway out of post-it notes.
Day 7: Singing with my collection of carolers.
Day 8: Holding baby Jesus. (This Fisher Price nativity is in Lilian's bedroom and she insisted on getting dressed in another room so Chester could not see her. Sigh.)

Day 9: Making his own wings out of sparkly pipe cleaner and joining the Willow Tree angels.
Day 10: Hanging out in the "C" stocking hook (out of PEACE) because C is for Chester. And bringing a little mini-me elf toy/treat for Lilian.
Day 11: Peek-a-boo from the plant in the kitchen window sill.
Day 12: Pyramid cup stacking.

Day 13: Camouflaged in the Christmas tree with some binoculars.
Day 14: Head over heels down the stairs in the slinky.
Day 15: Hanging out in the pantry surrounded by hot cocoa, chocolate oranges and candy canes...with some glow sticks for light.
Day 16: An elf inspired grocery list...
Day 17: An end-of-year Sunday reminder to the kids to pay their tithing.

Day 18: Hanging from a candy cane rope in the front entry way. (We had to watch carefully all day that we didn't bump into the little guy.)
Day 19: Photo shoot with Lilan's favorite dolls.
Day 20: Picking out his favorite Christmas music...Carpenters Christmas and Lex de Azevedo's 1980 Christmas. (Good taste...those are my favorites too...)
Day 21: Chester's final day with us before being picked up by Santa on Christmas Eve....a heart made out of candy canes and a note thanking us for the fun season and assuring Lilian that despite some ups and downs, he was recommending to Santa that she be on the "good list." (Lilian was so relieved.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas 2014

18 December 2014
1. A very strong and irresistible impulse or desire to travel the world.

     A raging case of wanderlust seems to have taken our family this past year. A friend commented yesterday, "I'm having a difficult time trying to decide….if you live in Utah, or just visit here between world trips." And that seems to sum things up rather perfectly. Travel has always been something that has interested me. I'm a little obsessed with different cultures, adventures, maps and geography…whether those places be someplace close by and familiar or far away and very foreign. We have travelled this year. Close-by and not so much so. Bustling cities and pristine beaches. Travel for singing, for theatre, for gymnastics. Travel for family fun. That this travel all happened this past year wasn't planned, necessarily. I guess the important thing is that we jumped on the opportunity when it arrived with zeal. But even more importantly, when we arrived back home after each trip away…and especially as we ease into a less chaotic time and look back on all of our travel, we've come to realize with much more certainty that there is no place like home. 

     Julianne actually started off our year in January with her Junior Theatre Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. Her advanced .............. Theatre class took their show "The Little Mermaid" (in which Julianne played a spot-on and hilarious rendition of Scuttle the Seagull) to compete with other theatre groups from all over the country. They met Broadway stars, participated in multiple theatre and choreography workshops, and basked in the high energy craziness that is the theatre community. 

     Brandon was packing his bags next. And with at least one parent in tow for each trip, he travelled to Houston, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Long Beach, California to compete in gymnastics meets throughout January and February. As a level 8 gymnast, (he skipped level 7 entirely), this was Brandon's first year competing optionals…which means making your own routine and picking skills that are on level but that can play to your strengths, rather than compete a set routine. It was a tough year, but an instructive one and ultimately a very good one. In Houston and Las Vegas along with Brandon's meet we were also able to watch the elite college teams and former olympians compete and Brandon had to opportunity to meet and hang out with the likes of Danell Leyva, Jake Dalton and John Orozco, among others. The kid was giddy. It's no little thing when you get to meet your heroes.

     Rebekah was next, with a Madrigal tour to Seattle, Washington in early April. I'd never been to Seattle before so I volunteered myself as a chaperone and endured the long bus ride for the chance to tag along. The view from the Space Needle is pretty awesome and Pikes Place Market is an eccentric wonder. We cruised through Elliott Bay on two different occasions and were surprised to have a dolphin sighting. But mostly it was tremendous fun hanging out with Rebekah's singing friends. Good kids, all….I was so impressed with them.

     Julianne turned 16 this year. Dating and driving…and to a lesser extent, a birthday trip with mom and dad to place of her choosing. I was thinking somewhere west coast. Julianne however decided that if we were amenable, she preferred to see "Newsies" on Broadway in New York City. I warned her that four days in NYC would equate to less time on the ground than the four days Rebekah got in San Deigo when she turned 16. She didn't care. As long as she was able to see a Broadway show she would be content. Well, in late April we stretched that four days in NYC as best we could. And along with "Newsies" she was also able to take in "Wicked" and "The Fantasticks." I will never forget her reaction to her first Broadway show. She was completely engrossed…with a grin splitting her face from ear to ear. During intermission she overflowed with thoughts about costuming, sets, choreography, symbolism and character choices. And the more she talked, the more emotional she got…just overwhelmed I guess, with the sheer spectacle of the thing and immense gratitude maybe, about being there at all. Broadway was the reason for the trip. But being able to introduce Julianne to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Times Square and other such NYC traditional treasures was also a lot of fun. And a reaffirmation to me that for some reason, a part of my soul seems to live in New York City.

     ….This is the part of the letter where we take a break from the travelogue and let me reminisce for a minute (and shed a few tears) about the other BIG EVENT that made its mark on 2014. Let me just begin with the admission that I am not normally a mommy-crier. I do the happy dance when my children turn 5 and start kindergarten. I don't bemoan the start of school in late August. I love my children, I love to spend time with them. But I don't cry when they leave…more the opposite really. So when the months started counting down to the end of the year and therefore Rebekah's graduation from high school, and then those months turned to week and then days, I was very surprised to find myself decidedly emotional. More than emotional, really. I was kind of a hot mess. Because somehow I was not ready for Rebekah to graduate from high school. Graduation, as happy as that big event is, tends to lead to leaving for college. I loved my college years. I wanted the same for Rebekah. I was so incredibly proud of her acceptance to (and scholarship award from ) Utah State University in Logan. But oh, how I would miss my girl! So graduation was bittersweet and wonderful. Joyful and tearful. She graduated with high honors and looked absolutely beautiful in that cap and gown.

     And then after a few summer months of working at Lagoon-a-Beach as a lifeguard, she packed up her things and moved into an off-campus apartment in Logan just a block down from the Aggie Stadium. She has three incredible roommates, one of which is her best friend and Madrigal buddy from ......... High. She just arrived home this week after finishing up her first semester of classes within her elementary education major. She is not fond of finals, but of college life itself, she is a fan. Because most of the boys her age are off on missions, she has been attracting attention from much older guys who are looking for more serious relationships. I was only half kidding when I suggested a fake wedding ring so she could get some studying done at the library without getting hit on. But she is now in the process of filling out papers for a mission of her own. She'll attend one more semester at USU and then in late May or early June, leave for 18 months to serve wherever she the Lord sees fit to send her. And as hard as it will be to see her go, I would much rather send her off on a mission this summer than plan a wedding.

     Two weeks after Rebekah's graduation I packed my suitcase and with passport in hand, I boarded a plane for eastern Europe. A performing tour with Odyssey Chorale, we sang our way through Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; and Prague, Czech Republic. I'm not sure I can adequately describe the pure awesomeness that was this trip. A few highlights: I got to travel with my mom, and my sisters Katie and Melissa. In Vienna (City of Music) we sang in Karlskirche, a gorgeous cathedral that is over 400 years old, where many of the musical greats (Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart) have debuted works. I had the honor of singing the soprano solo in Haydn's Missa Brevis, a mass comprised of five different movements…the soprano solo being the fourth movement, the "Benedictus." To sing a classical solo in that building, to sing a piece written by Haydn in the very city where it had been composed, was truly one of the highlights of my life. If beautiful Budapest introduced me to Europe and Vienna filled the musician inside of me, Prague stole my heart. Such a beautiful city, such amazing people…stoic on the outside, genuine and beautiful on the inside. Exploring the famous Charles Bridge and cruising down the Modau River in Prague, having a dinner party at the home of a famous Austrian opera singer and singing and dancing to Austrian tunes at a vineyard in Vienna, learning the ins and outs of cathedral symbolism and having my first taste of gelato in Budapest…I am filled with memories that will last a lifetime.

     While I was in Europe, 7-year old Lilian was experiencing some traveling of her own…her first "cousin camp" in St. George with her Grandma and Grandpa. Among the many activities her grandparents had planned for the four cousins, they saw two different shows at Tuachan theatre, hiked the red rocks in Snow Canyon and went swimming every day. Lilian came home the same day that I did and after I showed her all my pictures…palaces and cathedrals and architecture and concerts…she turned to me and said, "You know, Mommy…I think I had more fun that you." 

     In July we joined Bryan's family in Island Park, Idaho for our somewhat annual family camping trip. Thirty of us in all, this year rather than tent and trailer, we rent two cabins to house us all. I'd never been to Island Park, so it was interesting to see if the place lived up to all the hype I'd heard. And I'm happy to say that the praise was warranted, it is indeed a beautiful piece of country. Situated as it is right near Yellowstone meant that we were able to spend a day in the park seeing first hand how complex and otherworldly incredible our planet truly is. 

     Other than the odd campout or gymnastics weekend, our family had not been on a family vacation, all six of us, since before Lilian was born. And seeing as our family would be changing somewhat with Rebekah's entrance into adulthood and upcoming move, we decided that we needed to take some sort of big and adventurous vacation before she left. We settled on Kauai, Hawaii, purposely because we wanted to avoid the commercialism of the more tourist filled islands. And we chose to stay on the more rugged north shore of Kauai for the same reasons. We rented a condo on a cliff overlooking the ocean and settled in for 8 days of serious beach time. We arrived right in time for the unprecedented occurrence of two hurricanes heading our way, 3 days apart. (I think maybe this has something to do with the fact that we seem to have made an enemy of the water gods. Remind me to tell you sometime of the two floods we had earlier this year, Julianne's bedroom and the man-cave, respectively.) We looked at the storms as an adventure, and actually enjoyed bobbing up and down in the waves in Halalei Beach, staring down the incoming dark clouds as the outer bands of the raindrops were just beginning. By the time the storm Hurricane Iselle reached us in Kauai, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. And Hurricane Julio ended up passing just to the north of us on our final day on the island, not affecting us much. So though Iselle put a damper on some of our hiking plans, we greeted her happily and didn't let her ruin our trip. On the contrary, we and a truly glorious time together. I'm not sure there's anything better than watching a Hawaiian sunset with your family.

     We came home, sent Rebekah off to college, got everyone else settled into school and breathed a big sigh of relief. As fun as the travel-full year had been, it was nice to be home with no other trips on the horizon. Except that feeling only lasted a short while before wanderlust started to fill me again. (Helped along, I'm sure, by all the various travel and cruise offers that would arrive nearly daily in my email in-box.) So when Rebekah called home a few weeks ago with the announcement that she had decided she wanted to serve a mission, we decided to take advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday and cram in one last family trip before the year ended and we began mission prep. We booked a spur of the moment Caribbean cruise ten whole days in advance. (We are not normally drop-everything-and-go travelers so this was kind of a big deal for us.) Julianne was just finishing up her "West Side Story" over at ......... High and we literally pulled her off stage after her final bows on closing night and took her straight to the airport for a red-eye flight to Florida. Our cruise was beset with weather issues (apparently we still haven't made peace with those water gods) and two of our ports were cancelled, leaving us with four days at sea rather than two. But while being pampered aboard a classy Holland America cruise, how can you complain? We still had the opportunity to hike up Dunn's River Falls in Jamaica and explore Key West, Florida on bike. And then after the cruise finished, we spent two days in Universal Studios visiting Harry Potter.  

     That wraps up our 2014 Croft Travelogue. We have no other trips on the horizon. Well, other than Brandon's annual out of state gymnastics trips, and Julianne's high school Drama Club trip to NYC, and Rebekah's mission (wherever that ends up…I'm kind of hoping for Ireland). Okay, so maybe we will be traveling a bit. But I'm looking forward to settling in for a long while and reveling in the goodness that is our ......... home. At least until the next bout of wanderlust hits…

     It is always good to be home for Christmas, certainly. Now if it would only snow...

            Happy Holidays
Bryan, Sarah, Rebekah (18), Julianne (16), Brandon (13), and Lilian (7)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Singing Sisters

As per tradition, a big part of my Christmas season was singing. I was going to remark that Christmas singing is not necessarily a stereotypical tradition...except that it is. That I am in choirs that tend to perform at Christmastime in no way lessens the fact that music and singing are fairly commonplace during this season....concerts and Messiah sing-ins and caroling and Christmas music on the radio. It seems to me that people are more willing to join in singing songs at Christmas than in any other time of year.

We performed three concerts as The Sally Bytheway Chorale. And also per tradition, we took oodles of "singing sisters" pictures.

 Bryan and the kids came to see our concert at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. Always a good excuse to see the Christmas lights on the way in and out. Kim and Heather came too.

Shortly after the concerts we had our second annual Ugly Christmas Sweater lunch. Sally went all out on hers and took home the prize...bragging rights and our great admiration.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wizards for a weekend

Because Jetblue airline tickets were cheaper than any other I could find, but they only flew out of Orlando rather than Ft Lauderdale...and because even those tickets were less expensive if you flew on a weekday rather than a Sunday which was the day our cruise ended, we decided to spend a couple of days visiting Harry Potter in Universal Studios before flying home. At least that was my plan...the Harry Potter part. Universal Studios is packed to the brim with all sorts of wonderful rides and attractions but I must admit, I only had eyes for the wizarding world part of it all. The rest of my family, though excited about exploring Hogwarts, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, were equally as jazzed about Jurassic Park, Spiderman and the Hulk.

But ah, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It most definitely lives up to the hype! And I was giddy...maybe more so than even my children, about being there. I could not wipe the grin off my face, it all just seemed so ridiculously and perfectly real! And it's a good thing (mostly) that Bryan was there to curb my spending, because I really, really wanted to buy wands at Ollivanders, and extendable ears at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, and house scarves at Madame Malkin's Robes for all Occasions, and Bertie Bott's every flavor beans or chocolate frogs at Honeydukes. Actually I did by a chocolate frog....but you get the idea. Bryan agreed to lunch at Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. And beyond the surprisingly affordable and decent food, I think he enjoyed watching me happily geeking out about the fact that we were eating at Three Broomsticks! And can I just say...frozen butterbeer? Good stuff!

We walked right in and got a table easily at the Three Broomsticks. We ordered the feast for six...and wow if it wasn't a huge amount of really impressive yumminess...ribs and chicken and corn and potatoes and veggies. You don't usually expect amusement park food to be so good.

We were lucky. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is extremely popular and therefore, extremely busy most all of the time. Especially the newly opened Diagon Alley and Gringotts Bank ride which had only been around for four months. Apparently the place had been hopping over Thanksgiving only a few days earlier. But seeing as we arrived on Sunday afternoon, most holiday travelers were already heading for home and we literally walked on to almost every ride in Universal and Islands of Adventure....Harry Potter or other.

So yes, I know its hard to believe but there really is more to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure than just Harry Potter. A very large part, in fact...that in all reality Bryan and Brandon were just as excited (or even more so, strange as that seems) to get to.

(The parade with Despicable Me Minions, Sponge Bob sea creatures and Dora the Explorer was not one of them...but they got trapped behind the rope barrier while coming off a roller coaster....with Lilian and me happily parade watching on the other side. It made me laugh...their looks of patient tolerance.)
Bryan's favorite ride was The Simpsons. It was the last thing we rode on Sunday night before the park closed. We had just come off the Men In Black ride which had spun me around in unexpected and sick-making circles so I was already a bit woozy heading onto The Simpsons...which is a simulator type ride. About 15 seconds into it and I realized I was going to be seriously and embarrassingly sick if I didn't close my eyes. And so though I missed the visual of it all, I was able to focus on what I was hearing around me. And what stuck out at me most was Bryan's laughter. I haven't heard him laugh that hard in a long time. He's long been a fan of The Simpsons TV show but more than that, he said he just really enjoyed being completely taken in by the ride...that despite it being animated and knowing how these things normally work, it still felt so real. I woozily walked away from The Simpsons ride and passed the Twirl 'N' Hurl. I had to take a picture because though we didn't go on it, I very literally related to the sentiment!

We spent oodles of time hanging out in Camp Jurassic...a huge playground type area that was actually even fun for the grown ups. It's one of Brandon's favorite parts of Islands of Adventure (he'd visited a few years ago with grandparents) and he wanted to make sure we didn't miss it.

When it boils down to it, though we had an amazing time and made a lot of memories on our cruise and our two ports of Jamaica and Key West, I think the best part of our trip was the time spent at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. The perfect frosting on the cake. I hope we can go back again some day.