Memories of Christmases Past

The weekend before Christmas we enjoyed a visit with my side of the family for a few days, including my two brothers and one of my sister-in-laws (one had another commitment that was unavoidable). This meant that we traveled the 365+ miles from our home to my parents’ house in Michigan, a house that only gets smaller with each visit mostly because the people we bring along for the visit keep getting bigger. We’re just about at maximum capacity as it stands right now, with little or no extra wiggle room. As Todd put it as we tried to see how many Fennells and their families could fit in the kitchen at one time, “Christmas is about being close together.” We definitely achieve that.

This is not the story, however, because the visit itself was quite peaceful and enjoyable (at least from my perspective; my family reading this post later on may have their own comments to make regarding their take on the weekend!). As we drove up I-75 as Todd and I have for more than a decade as a family and as he has since he was a youngster traveling with his family to see relatives in either Toledo or Monroe, thoughts of Christmases past came back to me. There have been some memorable–and not so memorable–ones to reflect upon. Let’s face it: other than the remarkable view as one comes into Cincinnati where you can see the entire city spread out across the skyline, the drive is about as exciting as watching paint dry. “Look, kids! More flat lands!” and “Check it out over there! Corn fields!! And factories are coming up in about twenty miles!” At least for me, with this drive, the joy is not really in the journey. Maybe that’s why I start to think about the circumstances surrounding past trips up and down the interstate.

The first Christmas of our married lives we were supposed to spend in Korea. We moved to San Francisco a short two weeks after we got married, and before we could tell anyone we’d been married for three months, we found ourselves expatriates living in Taejon, South Korea. Somehow we got a great deal on flights back to the US for Christmas and flew home on December 21. We weren’t well-versed yet on how to handle our two families and who to spend which holiday with, but it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly than it did that year. My parents and brother Mike had plans to fly out to Colorado to spend Christmas week with my older brother Tom and his wife Melissa, so they would be gone when we arrived stateside. We worked it out with Todd’s friend to pick us up in Cincinnati and drive us back to Kentucky so we could show up as unannounced as possible at his mom and dad’s house. It went off without a hitch and I do believe that was one of the best surprises I’ve ever been a part of. Todd called his mom and while we were on the phone, we walked up to the porch and knocked on the front door. They were speechless! We enjoyed surprising his sisters and had a wonderful Christmas with his family. On Christmas Day, I planned out my fib details and called my family in Colorado, lying that we were nestled in our Taejon home feeling very homesick all by ourselves. They had no reason to doubt us, so it went off without a hitch.

Our next surprise included driving up to Michigan to meet my parents and brother at the airport as they returned home. Despite a few glitches (the largest one being that the arrival gate switched three times between two gates on opposite ends of the very large Metro Airport which helped us to get our exercise for the week), we met up with them in the baggage area and the surprise was complete. For a while we thought we’d have to leave the airport altogether and head to the hospital due to the reaction my mom had when she saw us! She was more than a little excited to have us in the US and didn’t care who heard her! We spent the rest of our Christmas break in the States traveling back and forth between KY and MI and saw everyone we could squeeze into our schedule. It was a busy but worthwhile trip that we still look back upon fondly.

The next time we traveled on Christmas was two years later. The Christmas after Hannah was born in 1997 we stayed in Korea. That’s another story altogether, so I’ll leave that for a different time. By December of ’98, we had been back in the US since April and were expecting another baby. We had our little family’s Christmas a few days before the 25th and planned to travel up to MI on Christmas Eve. Packed into our silver Saturn SE, we made the trip with our one 14-month-old baby and thought we had it so rough. Turns out, when she projectile vomited all over herself, the back of the passenger seat of the car, and exactly half of me when we were about three miles from my parents’ house, we did indeed have it rough. I had never seen anyone expel that much from themselves (except for those gross SNL skits, but those were fake!). I can’t imagine what my parents thought when we got out of that stinky car in their driveway, Hannah crying and all of us on the verge of puking ourselves. Good times. It took forever to get the upholstery cleaned in that car. Blech. BUT, the rest of the Christmas visit there was fun! Hannah wasn’t sick and never had another incident, thankfully.

I can’t think of anything noteworthy on trips to MI until 2002–at least for the purposes of this post. If there isn’t anything icky or troublesome, it must have been a good visit, right? Christmas of 2002 found us as a family with four children 5 and under, with Ben being a mere 8 weeks old. That was a tough trip, not only because it’s just a challenge to travel with four kids, but also because we slept in the same room. My parents don’t have a big house and for some reason, we all slept in the basement that visit. Even though Ben had been on his way to sleeping through the night and was doing great stretches at night, during that trip he seemed to go backwards and woke up multiple times a night. Because the younger kids were also in the room with us, I remember always getting him up and trying to keep the noise to a minimum. I wonder if my parents remember it or not, but I just recall being exceedingly grumpy during that time….mostly because of sleep deprivation!

2004 may have been the most memorable journey up to Michigan so far. On the day we planned to leave, a huge snowstorm was forecast to arrive across the entire Ohio valley region and up through the Great Lakes–pretty much all the way across the portion of I-75 that we had to travel. We hemmed and hawed and really made our list and checked it twice, but in the end, decided to leave and try to beat the storm rather than wait and run the risk of having to miss our time with my mom and dad altogether. If we knew then what we know now, I don’t know that we’d make the trip again.

We left around 2pm on December 23, thinking we’d arrive at our destination 365 miles away before 11pm or so. Little did we know that when the snow started, it came with a vengeance. We almost made the 90 mile trip to Cincinnati as usual and it went downhill quickly from there. By the time we were a little south of Cincinnati, the roads started to become treacherous and we had to slow our interstate traveling speed down to 35 mph max. The number of cars, SUVs, and even semis off the road and into ditches was staggering. We stopped soon after 8pm just north of Cincinnati to feed the kids some dinner and allow Todd to take a break. He had already been driving for six hours, white-knuckling it the whole way, and we were barely 1/3 of the way into the trip. It was going to be a long night. We talked about stopping altogether, but the thought of getting snowed in and stuck in Podunk, Ohio did not appeal to any of us. While we ate at the local Frisch’s, the snowfall covered our van. After making sure every child either had a clean and dry diaper or had used the potty, we piled back into the van, prayed for safe travels, and headed back out.

In the short time that we had stopped, the snow-covered roads had become even more slippery and precarious and at times our speed was reduced to as little as 15 mph. At times the drive up 75 seems to crawl by, but that night it actually did take us seemingly forever. The snow was falling too quickly for road crews to keep up with it, though there were a few times that we caught a break and got behind a salt truck or snow plow and had a slightly easier ride. The kids seemed to sense that this was not a good situation and were amazingly quiet and well-behaved throughout the trip despite not sleeping very much. Todd was the closest thing to a nervous wreck that I have ever seen, but it was absolutely warranted. I was about 12 weeks pregnant at the time too and just remember roasting and feeling nauseous for the entire trip. It was so hot inside the car, but if I remember correctly, Todd had the defroster on full blast so the window didn’t freeze up. I also remember us having a lot of trouble keeping the windshield wipers clean. The only way I could keep from burning up was to keep the back of my hand up against the cold window on my door. I didn’t dare complain, however, because I knew Todd had his hands full trying to keep his family from ending up in a ditch somewhere between the Ohio River and Toledo.

After what felt like forever, we finally arrived at my parents’ house after 5am the next morning. Todd was a basket of nerves and complained the rest of the day about his hands hurting from grasping the steering wheel continuously for 15 hours. We were so thankful that we actually arrived at our destination and hadn’t got stranded somewhere. When we watched the news later that day, we learned that almost all of Ohio was under a snow emergency and parts of 75 were actually closed completely. When I looked back just now through weather archives online, I found out that snowfall amounts through the Ohio Valley region ranged from 10-20″. We had definitely been protected on our trip and were acutely aware of how many other people did not make it to their goals. By the time we planned to go home, the roads had been cleared enough to get home in less than half the time it had taken us to go up north.

Since that adventurous Christmas trip, we haven’t had too many noteworthy forays to the Wolverine state. In my opinion, if I can’t remember it, it must have been OK. This past trip up, however, reminded me just a tad of expeditions of Christmas past when Chloe complained of her tummy hurting only seconds before ralphing up her lunch. Thankfully she had made some noise a while back and I happened to have an empty storage container that I had her keep in her lap. Unfortunately for Hannah, she was the kid sitting next to her baby sister when her upset tummy got the best of her. While driving through downtown Detroit (about 20 miles from my folks’ house), it happened. Poor Hannah had to hold the container until we stopped because there really isn’t any place to pull off downtown and get rid of the goods if you know what I’m saying. In fact, the faster one moves through Detroit, the better. Hannah was grateful that the container also had a lid. If she hadn’t put us through the same thing (and worse!) many years before, I may have had more sympathy for her. But as it was, the timing was bad for all of us. I’m happy to report that we all made it in one piece to “Grandmother’s House” and no one actually got sick(er) because of the unfortunate turn of events. I think Chloe may have been carsick for the first time. Whatever the case, I’m so glad we didn’t bring a stomach bug as a Christmas gift for my side of the family! We actually went on to have one of the best visits that I can remember. We ALL thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, had fun playing games, playing in the snow and ice, eating good food and sweet treats, enjoying each other’s company, and generally relaxing around the Christmas tree. It was such a blessing to spend time with my parents and the kids had a ball. With the health concerns we had over the past year, it was an extra sweet gift to have the time with everyone, and one I don’t think any of us will soon forget.

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