It had been eleven years since the last time we were home at Christmas, and we made up for lost time in the two weeks we spent in the desert.
I had a busy month or so before our trip, including my church’s staging of A Christmas Carol the second week of December and all the preparations necessary for being gone over Christmas. Lindsay and Jacque had final exams in the days leading to our departure, while Micah had only a holiday party at school, including getting to wear pajamas to school.
We drove an hour and a half to Indianapolis, where we had tickets for a non-stop flight. When I purchased our airfare back in July, I anticipated weather delays in Chicago and elsewhere, so I wanted to make sure to minimize the flights. Otherwise, we’d have simply flown out of Dayton with multiple connections. Landing in Phoenix around 11 pm, we then waited for almost an hour to get the rental car I’d reserved five months earlier. We didn’t make it to our hotel room just a few miles from the airport until almost 1 am — our bodies were, of course, still on Eastern time (two hours later).
We slept in the next morning, then before we drove the three hours to Yuma, we stopped at one of our favorite restaurants in the West: Rubio’s Baja Grill. Sadly, the quality of their fish tacos has diminished over the years. (Las Palapas in Yuma is better.)
Our hosts in Yuma were my sister Becky and her husband Steve, whom our kids call Uncle Steve-uh — for Steve A. (Anderson) — as they have another Uncle Steve, my brother. Becky and Steve had just moved into their new home a couple of months before and had plenty of room for us. We never felt like we were in their way, which made our long visit not nearly as long. What a lovely home! And a lovely couple! Their hospitality was wonderful.
One of the highlights of our trip was the surprise party we managed to throw for Cindy. Given that her birthday is a few days before Christmas, I’ve always tried to make her day special. None was more special! Becky and my sister Amy arranged getting the guests there, including extended family on both sides. I didn’t want to be messaging anyone in Yuma for fear that Cindy would stumble upon a notification on my phone. In fact, someone showed me how to put Becky and Amy in do not disturb mode, so their notifications wouldn’t show up either. I felt inappropriately sneaky!
To get Cindy out of the house so we could make preparations (decorating, food, cake), I made an afternoon appointment for Cindy at a swanky day spa, where she received a 60-minute massage and some kind of hair styling. (The facial had to be rescheduled.) Amy took her to the spa and managed to delay long enough for all our guests to arrive.
The kids hid in the front bedroom spying out the window for Cindy and Amy, while the adults engaged in hushed small talk. None of us wanted to begin a serious conversation. We were all just waiting. And when Cindy finally arrived, she was absolutely shocked. Thrilled that everyone showed up just for her. It was a wonderful moment. And then the party was great, as we reacquainted with one another. We hadn’t been home as a family since March 2014.
We celebrated my mother’s birthday a couple of days later at some steakhouse. I don’t remember which — one of those places that serves shelled peanuts and they encourage you to toss the hulls on the floor. Afterward we shared the German Chocolate Cake Becky made for our mom. I presented her with a box of Esther Price chocolate I’d picked up a week or so before at the Englewood shop, which sits not 500 yards from the YMCA where I sometimes work out. (I admit when I bought the chocolate for Mom that I purchased a bourbon cordial cherry for myself — just one, though.)
I played Mom’s piano for her, the one I spent countless hours at during the bulk of my teenage years. I didn’t play any music the rest of our trip. Neither did Lindsay (guitar), nor Jacque (piano) — we all experienced withdrawals.
The next evening we met Becky and Steve at their church for Christmas Eve. It was a nice service, but I had the nagging feeling I should’ve been leading back home. My team, including our youth pastor Josh, who has plenty of experience leading worship, did a wonderful job in my absence. But Christmas Eve, second only to Easter, is one of my favorite worship gatherings to lead. And I missed it.
But we didn’t miss Chinese food! We established our own family tradition back in 2008, I think. After Christmas Eve services in Ohio, we’ve never had anywhere to be. And we’re usually hungry. And nothing else is open on Christmas. It’s a tradition Becky, when she visited a few years ago at Christmas (before she was married), looked forward to. My sister and brothers and their families and our mother and her husband all gathered at a big buffet in Yuma. It was a nice time together, except that invariably a third of the table was always gone getting more food. Such is a buffet.
After the restaurant, we met Cindy’s family at her grandmother’s house, where so many aunts and uncles and cousins gathered for posole, a Mexican soup, among other delicacies. In the Mexican tradition, we stayed up late to greet one another with a midnight “Merry Christmas” and a hug. Just before midnight, all the kids opened their Christmas gifts.
We slept late the following morning before my family arrived at Becky’s house for brunch. Afterward, we opened gifts and shared with the younger ones a surprise we’d kept for several months — a trip to Disneyland the following day.
I’ll share more about that little jaunt to Anaheim, as well as the rest of our trip next time.