Ready, set, go!

By: Aimee Tafreshi

img_4345What would you take with you if your house faced destruction and you had limited time and space? Clearly your children—well, most of us would. Dogs, definitely. We faced this conundrum last week. The week started normally enough with viola lessons, soccer practice and STEM night at my daughter’s school. In the background, a hurricane churned in the Atlantic and barreled its way through the Caribbean. The weekend before, I advised my husband to fill up with gas, as you never know. He thought I was paranoid, I’m sure.

On Tuesday, he was supposed to fly out to Virginia for a work trip. By this point, the hurricane “spaghetti” models showed Hurricane Matthew working its way up the East Coast, in some form or fashion. One lone bright pink line diverged from the others and showed a possible path right along the coastline, right near our coastline. It’s just one model, he reasoned with me. Come Tuesday morning, his trip was almost called off, but co-workers had already boarded flights. The outing was now back on. I imagined evacuating the house, kids and dogs by myself. I knew his particular airline would mercilessly cancel all flights mid-week. I am a hurricane virgin. I have never lived through a hurricane nor evacuated because of one. I can do this, I told myself with false confidence.

Lo and behold, divine intervention, fate, common sense, what have you, stepped in and canceled his work trip minutes before he was to board the plane. I was jubilant when he told me the news. This hurricane was coming; I could feel it. Wednesday arrived, and the rain and wind started picking up. We both worked all day, work obligations and deadlines, as I daydreamed about boarding up the house. We didn’t have storm shutters; hurricanes weren’t supposed to come this way. Finally, the mandatory evacuation order came. It was go time.

My husband got home from work, and it was time to pack and prep the house. Our preparations did not include boarding up the house or putting up storm shutters. That ship had sailed. There simply wasn’t time. Instead, I thought about what would probably happen. The front room windows would likely shatter, and water and debris would soak everything in its sight. Unfortunately, the front room is a dining room turned home office, which means it is a staging area for kids’ artwork waiting to be filed, toothy school portraits waiting to be shared and other sentimental papers and musty greeting cards.

I didn’t really care about our beat up furniture—we have two sons—or things like the TV. All of that stuff can be replaced. What I did care about were drawings forged by small hands, endless sheets of imperfectly written preschool letters and scattered photographs.

I remembered that during a devastating fire at my parents’ house, my mother had remarked that the items she had stored in plastic bins had not been touched by the ash and soot that had ruined much of the other stuff. Ah ha! I smartly packed all of the sentimental crafts and papers in a large plastic bin and stored it upstairs, in case of storm surge. Other random things I moved included the kids’ art portfolios from their past school years, three painted glass bottles they had created on a Saturday at the downtown art co-op, and a glass Longhorn Bevo, an homage to my beloved Texas team.

I also pushed my grandmother’s antique chair away from the window, as I knew she would not be pleased if I let her heirloom get ruined by broken glass or an errant tree limb.

The things I couldn’t stand to lose the most were the things that could never be replaced. I later cursed myself for not taking down my daughter’s bulletin boards, covered with her best kindergarten paintings, and mentally pictured the papers disintegrating as the rain blasted through blown out windows.

Now it was time to pack. As the evening wore on, I thought less about packing for a short-term trip and more about packing for months. I initially packed one extra set of disposable contact lenses and then realized I should take the entire pack. My husband reminded me to take any valuable jewelry. I don’t have a ton of fancy baubles, other than a few things I wear everyday, but I decided on an antique watch my dad had gifted me, because it makes me think of him. I also grabbed a roadrunner pin that had belonged to my grandmother—she obsessively collected roadrunners—and a vintage Texas Longhorns brooch my mother had given me.

I told my other half to grab my daughter’s baby book; her younger siblings’ books weren’t quite finished, so what was the point with theirs? We also took the wedding album and some important papers to show proof of our existence.

The next morning we arose at 4:00 a.m., and as usual, I wanted to hit the “snooze” button repeatedly and stay in bed. But then my instincts kicked in, as a monster storm was heading our way, and I had better wake the heck up. We were out the door by 5:15 a.m., three kids, two large dogs, and two tired parents crammed into an SUV. My poor son woke up in the middle of the night, afraid we had evacuated without him. He raced downstairs at 5:00 in the morning, exclaiming that he was “just in time” to leave. Boy was he right.

I was expecting to sit on the interstate for 12 hours and pee in plastic bottles, after seeing many nightmare traffic jams on the news over the years, but the one thing you can count on with an island is that people don’t like to wake up early. We made it to Tallahassee in record time. Our hotel room wasn’t ready until more than six hours later, so we bided our time walking a verdant nature trail, stuffing ourselves at a local diner and playing at an expansive park with fellow “evacuees.”

The next day, the storm track looked ominous. The models showed it shifting west with the eye wall going directly over our small historic town as a Category 4 or worse. At that point, I wanted to cry, not just for us but also for the entire town. I was worried for those who decided to stay and ride out the storm, worried for everyone’s homes and worried that our quaint historical island would be wiped off the map. I fell asleep not knowing what would face us on The Weather Channel the next day.

Promising news beamed in with the sun on Friday. The storm had shifted east, and our town would be spared the eye wall. I’m no meteorologist, but this meant less wind speed and less chance of total devastation. That evening, while the hurricane whipped through Northeast Florida, we attended a friend’s hurricane party, held at her in-laws’ sprawling property. Her mother-in-law had gone all out with homemade salads, a variety of chips and dip, pizza and drinks galore.

As we chatted with new friends, improbably brought together by an unlikely storm, our children played exuberantly on an oversized, outdoor hammock, erupting in laughter each time they tumbled off together onto the soft ground. The kids danced around each other, blowing bubbles and playing hide and seek among the protective trees. The end of the evening was capped off by glow in the dark bands the little ones wore on their necks and limbs as they twirled in the dark. I didn’t know what was happening to our house, but I knew I was happy, and that we had everything we needed. Most of all, I felt grateful and content.

We traveled home Saturday and were amazed that our house was largely unscathed by the storm. Others around us weren’t so lucky, and those in places like Haiti face yet another devastating recovery. I’m not sure why our small town was spared, but through this experience, I realized that we have very little control over nature or even our own lives, at times. I learned that if I had to walk away from my house and give it all up, I think that I could. And also, I plan on investing in some good storm shutters for next hurricane season.

Aimee Tafreshi is a freelance writer and attorney who also contributes to Nameberry.com and her own blog once in a blue moon, aimeetafreshi.com. She is also a mother and professional chauffeur to three spirited, young children.

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Make a Spring Break For It

By: Aimee Tafreshi

IMG_0128Punxsatawney Phil did not see his shadow last month, so Groundhog Day left us with a prediction of an early spring. For some, the end of winter means putting up the snow blower, downgrading from a down jacket to a fleece and not worrying about the next blizzard. For others, it simply means we can put our cardigans back in the bottom drawer, and stop wearing socks with our flip-flops.

Spring is a time of rebirth, reawakening and … vacation! March is here, and in a few weeks, students will start the time-honored tradition of Spring Break, their week of freedom from school. Spring Break can be a source of excitement for children, or utter dread for parents. Many parents do not have the luxury to take a week off from work and other commitments to plan a get-away for their brood. For those lucky enough to have the time and resources to get away, here are some ideas for places to maximize your family fun.

Stay Cozy with a Luxe Staycation

For many, the thought of air travel, with its bag restrictions, weather delays and scaled back services, is not an appealing option. Throw in a couple of impatient, pint-size travelers, and a one-stop flight can turn into a never-ending nightmare. Gas prices are super low, but some parents cringe at the idea of road-tripping it with babies or toddlers. Hazards of road travel include frequent chants of “Are we there yet?”, bathroom stops every twenty minutes, and occasional projectile vomiting from carsickness. (If you go down this road, I strongly recommend Dramimine for Kids, which conveniently induces sleep while preventing nausea).

A staycation is the ideal solution for parents who don’t want to mess with the headaches of traveling. Yes, you will still have to pack your bags, but if you forget something, you can just run back home. Do you live in a city with a kid-friendly hotel, or one that offers roomy suites and a nice pool, or proximity to local attractions? I reside in a touristy town, so we are fortunate to be down the road from two acclaimed beachfront resorts, but you don’t have to live near the coast for a cool hotel stay.

For those in Austin, three resorts jumped out at me as the ultimate family destination: the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa, and Lakeway Resort and Spa. Each of these resorts offers amenities such as kids’ camps, kid-dedicated pool areas and recreation schedules for the whole family to enjoy. Not to mention, the “Spa” part—relax with a massage while your mini-me is hiking through the beautiful hill country with her new friends. Just remember the sunscreen and bug spray!

For those closer to San Antonio, the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa boasts a lazy river, five-acre water park and pools, poolside cabanas for protection from the sun, and a zero-entry wading pool for the littlest water babies. From this sprawling property, you can easily eat and drink your way around the San Antonio River Walk, remember the Alamo, shop at El Mercado, go spelunking at Natural Bridge Caverns, explore the historic Spanish colonial missions or seek cultural enrichment at the Witte Museum, in addition to the city’s various theme parks. I grew up in San Antonio and remember field trips to many of these attractions, which I took for granted at the time. One day I hope to take my kids to this city filled with Texas history and rich culture.

Even if you don’t live close to a resort with all the amenities, look for a hotel that offers options like family-friendly suites, free breakfast and an inviting pool. Kids are easily entertained and don’t need an 18-hole golf course. Poolside food and drink service is a plus!

The “I’m on a Budget” Staycation

Many of us don’t have the funds set aside to stay at a fancy resort. You don’t have to check in to a hotel to live up your (kids’) Spring Break to the fullest. Get together with your offspring, and make a list of activities in your area you would like to do together. Seek input from the smallest to the eldest children. You can designate each day, or morning, for a particular outing. Many museums offer a free day of admission each week to the public; you may want to use that day to check it out for free, or if fewer crowds are important, go during an off-peak time. Google searches now allow you to view the “popular times” of particular venues to determine crowd levels.

Some ideas for daily excursions include: a picnic at the neighborhood park, trips to the zoo or aquarium, an easy hike at a nature preserve with trails, a visit to a children’s museum, an art museum with a kid-friendly section, a museum of natural history, a low-profile sporting event (ex: high school baseball game, local soccer match), volunteering at a lake or beach cleanup or soup kitchen, going to a scenic location in your city with sketch pads, and colored pencils or water colors, and drawing or painting what you see. Many of these activities obviously depend on your children’s ages.

I have discovered that the older my children get, the more complex the activities can be. With a baby or toddler, you need to respect their feeding and sleeping schedules, and work around those times with easy, no fuss outings. A walk around the block with a months-old baby can be considered a successful outing when the new mother has been cooped up in the house for days.

The All-You-Can-Everything Option

Many days I dream of an all-inclusive vacation near a sandy beach and turquoise waters where my children are whisked away to an enriching kids’ club. The hubby and I will lounge by the pool, drink piña coladas and snorkel. I have spent countless hours researching this dream trip, and the destination that checks all the boxes is Beaches Turks & Caicos. The price tag is enormous, especially for a suite, as my husband and I require separation from our children in the evening hours. I put this resort on my bucket list, and until then, I will dream of basking in the glowing sun with bottomless drinks.

Another promising destination is the Franklyn D. Resort in Jamaica. This property caught my eye on TripAdvisor one day when I read glowing reviews of its nanny service(!). Each family is paired with a nanny to care for the children during the day so the parents can enjoy their time together. These nannies come with the all-inclusive package and also act as your personal assistant and refrigerator stocker. I’m all for quality family time, but I’m sure the kiddos would have a blast with their nanny playing on the beach in the Caribbean. I wouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt.

Disney World & Theme Parks

We live in Florida, so naturally every week someone’s Facebook post includes pictures from their latest trip to Disney World. We have braved Disney World twice, once staying at the budget-friendly and fun themed Disney property, the Art of Animation Resort, and the other time staying “off-property” (some Disney fans shudder at this word.) Disney World is a lot like childbirth. I forget how painful it is, and then I decide to give it another shot. A glutton for punishment, I have considered visiting the land of Mickey Mouse this spring.

If I do take the plunge, I have my eye on Disney’s Old Key West Resort. The suites are large, the property is older and less hectic than the other resorts, and you can take a boat ride to Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney).

Besides Disney World, Orlando has a ton of appealing attractions such as Universal Studios, Discovery Cove, Legoland and Gatorland. I personally would not visit Disney World during Spring Break but would instead opt to pull the kids out of school in late April, as waiting in lines for hours with thousands of people is not my idea of a fun vacation.

Take a Cruise

If you live near a departure port, like Galveston or Miami, a cruise could be an excellent option for a family vacation. There are many different price points, types of cruises and destinations offered. I have heard from many experienced cruisers that Disney Cruise Line is top notch. Carnival has caught my eye in the past because they offer a kids’ club to ages three and up, which would suit my family’s needs, and appear budget-friendly, though the extras can quickly add up.

If you don’t mind sticking to a ship’s schedule, or worry about a sickness outbreak or rough seas (can you tell I am afraid to go on a cruise?), then hitting the high seas might be an ideal way to explore different vacation spots and literally be entertained from dusk until dawn. (Don’t forget the stretchy yoga pants because I hear the food options are out of this world!)

The Great Outdoors

This is the option that I know the least about, because we have yet to take our children camping. We live near a beautiful state park, where you can rent a spot and plop down your camper or tent. Personally the camping that calls to me includes cabins and running water, or its modern spin-off, “glamping.” There is something appealing about hearing the crickets at night, roasting s’mores over a blazing campfire and bonding in the simple pleasures of nature.

For those in need of nearby civilization and fake characters, I have heard rave reviews about Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, a campground property within the Magic Kingdom (with posh cabins or basic campsite set-ups), as well as Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts. These options cater to families with outdoor amenities and cuddly characters like Chip ‘n’ Dale hanging around the campfire. We plan to go camping in the future with our three young children, and I will report back with my observations.

Send Your Kids Away

And the final option, which is appealing in its own right, is a Spring Break camp for kids. It’s a safe bet that your city contains multiple options for your children, whether through their after-school programs, the YMCA, the local kid-friendly museums or sports, to name a few. If you can’t take time off or swing a family vacation, or would rather enjoy your quiet time at home spring cleaning or watching HGTV, sign your kids up for a camp. They will come home worn out each day, and you can rest easy knowing that they are making happy memories during their time off without breaking the bank or your sanity.

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has also contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She has no affiliation with any of the hotel properties mentioned in this blog, other than being in desperate need of a vacation. For how not to do Disney, check out her recounting of a disastrous trip here.

Summertime, and the Livin’ is (Sort Of) Easy

It is safe to say that I have been on a blog writing hiatus for the past month or so. I felt sure that once school ended for the year I would have nothing but time on my hands. Time to write. Time to clean and cook. Time to relax. I suppose I underestimated the amount of undivided attention an almost one year old requires. Now don’t get me wrong… I love taking care of my little guy and feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to stay at home with him from now on, but holy Hell is it hard! Baby Jack- soon to be Toddler Jack (not to be confused with Simple Jack)– is in to absolutely everything. He is an ER trip waiting to happen (happened, but that’s a whole other story).

And the kid is not a napper. Who are these people whose children nap for 2-3 hours at a time? What is their secret? I am lucky to squeeze a 45 minute nap out of my child each day, and I have so many things to accomplish during those 45 minutes that I accomplish absolutely nothing. It’s all kinds of awesome. I am really good at starting tasks and really, really bad at finishing them.

In addition to neglecting every major bullet point on my to-do list this summer, I have also been busy traveling. In June the hubs and I took our first baby-free vacay to the land of hipsters and heat… Palm Springs. My husband was a groomsman in the destination wedding we attended. I was happy to hold the title of wedding guest extraordinaire (self-appointed title, but title nonetheless). I had no obligations other than to show up to the rehearsal dinner and wedding. I took it upon myself to take full advantage of the pool and more importantly poolside bar. It was glorious… And then I was SO ready to be home with my sweet little boy.

Why we decided to fly out of LAX the morning after a wedding I will never know, but it’s a good thing that there was a cute little muffin baby waiting on the other side, because I can say with some degree of confidence that I wouldn’t have survived that brutal trip home otherwise.

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The Texans of the group paying respect to one of our favorite locals in a little film shot in town called Dazed and Confused. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it tonight. 

About a week after Palm Springs, Jack and I trekked it down to the Texas Riviera (gulf coast) with my parents. It’s almost like the Mexican Riviera, except pretty much the complete opposite. Despite the brown water and stinky sea-weed covered beaches, there is something rather charming about our little coastal towns. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia aspect that draws us back year after year.

We are beach people, so I was thrilled when we took Jack down to the beach the very first morning and he absolutely loved it. He squealed in delight! He giggled with glee! We could not keep him out of the water! And then he got nailed in the face with a wave… So long beach and hello pool.

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Jack loved spending time in the pool with his papa.

 We also got a day of rain while at the beach. Luckily, the Texas State Aquarium wasn’t too far away.

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Jack pointing at all of the “doggies” (aka fish). 

Not long after our trip to the coast, it was time for the annual 4th of July neighborhood parade. We live in an older neighborhood in town. In fact, my mom grew up on the very street that I now live on, and she has proudly walked in the parade for the past 50+ years, and my sister and I spent every 4th of July as children dressing up for the parade. Needless to say, it’s a pretty big deal in my family.

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With two summer trips and a holiday down, it is time to plan Baby Jack’s first birthday party. I can’t believe my sweet boy will be one in a little over a week… Check out the adorable invitation I created on Shutterfly:

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I’ve been all over Pinterest searching for decoration, cake, and food ideas for the big day. Stay tuned for my next blog post documenting the day I attempted to make a “practice” cake for his birthday. That day was yesterday, and it’s safe to say that I am still recovering from the whole debacle. It was quite the sh*t show.

Plan B

On January 31st, 2012, I stood on a beautiful white sand beach and exchanged wedding vows with my better half.

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The following day, we hopped on a ferry and embarked upon the ultimate honeymoon vacation.

St. John.

Tortola.

Jost Van Dyke.

Virgin Gorda.

For ten glorious days, we traipsed around the Caribbean without a care in the world.

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We ate. We drank. We celebrated.

We dreamed. We laughed. We loved.

It was hands down the best vacation of my life. When we returned home from our honeymoon, I was chomping at the bit to plan our next trip. We would need to travel during the off-season to afford where we wanted to stay, as we would be fitting the bill this time around. I researched islands until I was blue in the face and finally settled on Nevis, a tiny island near the top of the Lesser Antilles archipelago. We would travel in November and call it our Almost Anniversary Trip.

Leading up to the trip, I spent countless hours researching the best bars, beaches, and restaurants on the island. I bought cute swim suits and flirty dresses. Our couples massage was in the books.

And then October rolled around, and everything changed.

You see, B and I weren’t planning to have a baby for several years. We wanted to travel and hold onto our freedom for as long as the biological clock would allow. Evidently, the universe had other plans for us.

It’s funny how abruptly life changes when you find out that you are expecting. My husband and I began saving money instead of living paycheck to paycheck. We made responsible decisions instead of acting on every fleeting whim. We cancelled our Almost Anniversary Trip and earmarked the funds for Baby J’s birthing bills.

B and I haven’t made it back to the Caribbean just yet, but we have shared two of the most glorious years together in the comfort of our very own home. And thanks to Baby Jack, we laugh harder, dream bigger, and love stronger than we ever imagined possible… There is no denying the allure of an island vacation, but in all honesty, the Caribbean has nothing on my sweet little family.

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