Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, loves!

Before the turkey goes in the oven, before the formal dining room table is set, before our guests arrive, I like to wake early and sit outside with a hot cup of coffee and my thoughts. I love the back deck this time of day (or the front porch or lanai if it rains) when the sun is rising behind our home. The sky is pink, and everything is quiet. The kids are still asleep, my husband may or may not rise to join me depending on whether I can get out of bed without waking him – which he doesn’t mind, but it always makes me feel bad.

Today is one of my favorite days of the year. Nothing is a problem on this day. All the things that bother me leading up to it are gone. The fact that there is an additional guest coming that no one bothered to mention to us, or the fact that everyone loves to gather in the kitchen and basically get in our way nonstop, or the fact that everyone wants to help us and all we want is for them to get out of the kitchen and leave things alone…they disappear. They aren’t a big deal (I mean, I’m fully aware they aren’t a big deal – ever – but I’m a petty kind of Type-A, so give me a little slack, mmmkay?). Everything is right in my world.

Growing up, all I ever wanted was a big, beautiful house in which my husband and I could host holidays, and the realization that the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world is my reality is my favorite feeling.

I also love today because our kids like to wake up and cuddle us before we prep our big breakfast and then dinner. They like to sit down and ask us what we are grateful and thankful for this year. Of course, we are always thankful for their sweet faces and for one another, but hearing them tell us that they are thankful for God or for us or for playing outside or for cookies or something else equally sweet and adorable makes us feel so good. We’ve raised four beautiful babes into polite, kind, loving little people – with enough sarcasm and dry humor to make them awesome. Pat on the back to us, please.

I always feel that I have so much to be thankful for, and this year is no exception. This year, my gratitude is just overwhelming (I know I say that every year). However, I really feel it so much more this year. So many beautiful things have happened this year that remind me of that and make me feel thankful every single day.

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There’s Beauty in Simplicity

Ask my husband or anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you I’m anything but simple. And they’ll tell you my taste is as far from simple as it gets. However, it’s the simplicity we’ve worked so hard to find this year that has brought me so much joy, and for that I’m thankful. Getting #backtobasics has been everything. While I’d like to say our calendar isn’t full all the time, that’s not true. We have for kids, careers, and a life that don’t allow for us to go unscheduled, but we have made it a point to avoid putting too much on the calendar. If we don’t really want to do it, we don’t do it.

The lack of planning every single weekend with events months in advance has been the most valuable experience. Even though none of our free weekends have been free at all, the ability to get up and say, “Let’s go to the Omni and take the kids to Disney for the evening,” or “Let’s book that weekend to go to Texas and see my grandmother,” or “What? Date night? We’d love to!” has been everything. We are more relaxed, we are happier, and we are enjoying the quality of our lives. If the past two weekends have been an example, it’s the simplest, most basic things that have the most profound impact and make for the most amazing memories. We are just so fortunate.

Laugher is the Best Medicine

I don’t care who you are, if you aren’t laughing as much as we’ve been laughing this year, you aren’t doing life right. There have been a lot of date nights and Wednesday night dinners and dinner parties this year that have been so much fun, so hilarious, and filled with so much laughter that every single one of us has forgotten we have a phone. No pictures. No tags. Nothing. Best nights ever. We’re doing life with some super fantastic people, and that’s what it’s about.

There’s No Time For Negativity

We all have bad days, annoyances, and stuff. Like, for example, I spent a few hours on Friday on the phone with Under Armour asking why the gifts I ordered on October 20th hadn’t arrived yet on November 16, only to find out that what I ordered was out of stock – no notification, but they did charge me. Then I hung up, called UPS and asked them why the Nordstrom package I was expecting that day went from being on the truck for delivery to being in Miami only for them to tell me someone messed up (um, obviously?) to then being on the phone with FedEx to ask if I can possibly reschedule the delivery of 51 boxes of fundraiser items because even though I told the fundraiser lady that this week is Thanksgiving and there is no one at my daughter’s school to accept the shipment, she shipped it for delivery this week anyway.

We all have our stuff. And it’s okay to complain about it. But it’s not okay to blame everyone else for your life problems. Most of the time, it’s your own fault you’re not enjoying life. You put yourself into situations that are just stupid, pointless, and take away from your life. It’s not anyone’s fault but your own, but many people don’t see that. They are always right, their opinion is always the correct one, and they know everything about everything all the time.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

This year has been so good for me minimizing that kind of interaction, and it’s been good for me to learn to put that kind of negativity away when I’m feeling it, too. That’s made me so much happier. When you just realize your own issues, work on them, and move on, your life is much happier. Listen, you can take a sandwich bag filled with pennies from a 6-year-old and count out $4 for them to buy a book at a book fair all while inhaling the overwhelming scent of marijuana straight from that baggie and complain about the fact that you’re just a volunteer and this is not your job, or you can laugh about it, pass it around for everyone to smell and then laugh harder when they realize what you just gave them. #lifechoices #truestory

You Do You, Boo

You know what? Do you, sister. Be yourself. Do what you love, what makes you happy, what brings joy to your heart. And love everyone else who does the same. What makes life so much sweeter is worrying about you. Don’t worry about anyone else, who they are, what they are, or that their preferences are different than yours. Worry about you, boo. If you’re like me and you won’t leave the house without some form of bold red lipstick just to drop off your kids, that’s amazing.

If you’re like two of my favorite ladies in the world who roll out of bed in the morning and have all the natural beauty and need none, that’s amazing. Don’t worry about what everyone else thinks about you. And, hey, try to find some good people in your life who love you and your weird stuff. Remember this – people focus on things about you that bother them because they are insecure about themselves in the same manner. But, the truth is that most of us don’t care how you live, what you look like, or what’s up in your life – unless it’s funny. I love the funny stuff.

If this year has taught me anything, it’s that my own approval is all I need. And the fact that my people get that and embrace that is like finding an extra cookie in the bakery box when you thought they were all gone. #delicious

Focus on Quality Over Quantity

My husband and I have spent a great deal of time this year focusing on quality over quantity with our time and with our kids. We want our time with them to be present, focused, and engaging. And that’s what we love the most. It’s been good.

Early Bedtimes Are Everything

The kids. Us. Me. Listen, if you can be asleep before 8:30 p.m., do it. You won’t ever regret any of that. That’s my life goal nightly. And that’s why our kids have always had early bedtimes. Because I like to sleep. I like to wake up early, and that means I have to go to sleep early so I can get a full night of great sleep and be my best self. It’s how I live my best life.

Get Away Every Month

We’ve always been frequent travelers, but this year we made a deal that we would get away for at least a weekend every month, with or without the kids depending on the situation – and so far we’ve managed to exceed that goal. We’ve had 14 weekends away or trips this year, everywhere from the Bahamas to New York City to two trips to Texas to West Palm Beach to Tampa and Orlando. We’ve taken the kids, we’ve not taken the kids. And we still have a few more trips in the books before the year is over.

That time away has been priceless for both us and our kids, and we’ve loved it. There is nothing like knowing that at least once a month, someone else is going to uncork your bottle of champs and deliver coffee to you in bed in the morning. I consider that living my best life.

Get to Church and Spend Time With God

Do I need to add anything to that?

Smile

There might be a long list of annoyances in the everyday, but life is too good to complain about. So, stop complaining, look for the good in every day, and smile. You have a good life, you just have to stop focusing on the negative, make changes where you’re unhappy, and make everyday a good one. Trust me, you can do it. It’s a hell of a lot easier than you think.

So, that’s what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful for life lessons, for laughter, for the people in my life, for my faith, for the good fortune we work so hard for, and for our sweet family and the abundance of love that we have in our lives. We are overflowing with love and with people who make our hearts feel so full – and that’s what’s so important to us.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Remember, your irritating in-laws (or your own family) will be gone at the end of the day. So, if you’re currently struggling to find something to be thankful for as your mother tells you that you’re not doing this right or your in-laws make comments about this, go ahead and just be thankful that you don’t have to have these dinners every night, give them a hug, and tell them you love them even if they make you crazier than you want to be. The good news is that they probably already know they make you crazy, and they’re never going to stop. It’s called family, and they’re the best.

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Thank You: Giving Thanks to the Men Who Helped Our Daughter When Our Worst Fear Came True

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It’s Thanksgiving week, and that means it’s going to be a week filled with very grateful, thankful people – and there is nothing wrong with that. I do wish more people would focus more regularly on being thankful for all they don’t have rather than being upset by all they don’t; but that’s not really my problem. Today, my plan was to share a post about holiday hosting. Tips, tricks, and a few of my favorites.

Instead, I’m pushing it back to later in the week, and I’m going to share some thanks. Not your typical thanks. But I’m going to give thanks to two men whom I’ve never met before, whose names I don’t know. Two men who protected my baby. Two men who kept her safe, calm, and helped her when she needed help more than ever.

This weekend was like any other. We decided it was the perfect weekend to spend in Orlando hanging out at Disney with the kids. We’ve got four – kids, that is. And we’ve been annual passholders for about 8 years, since our oldest child was almost 1. We don’t live far from the parks, it’s easy for us to spend a couple of hours on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon, or even a weekend having fun.

The kids are familiar with the park. They know their way around like the back of their hands. They know where everything is, how fast passes work, where to go for the best this or that, and the best places to go when it’s raining, when it’s hot, when it’s cold, or to see the parades or shows. They’ve only been a couple million times, that’s all.

But this weekend was not like any other weekend. This weekend was our worst nightmare come true. We had all four kids (Addison is 9, Ava is 6, and Carter and Charlotte are 3) Saturday at the park. It was meant to be a weekend of fun in the sun, relaxation, and some great meals at a few of our favorite places. We slept in on Saturday morning, relaxed over some delicious Starbucks, and ended up at Disney before noon.

We had fast passes, we did our favorite rides, we bought new toys and new hats, and we stopped for massive ice cream cones, bowls, cookies, and dishes at the Ice Cream Shoppe on Mainstreet for a break. Just before we were leaving Magic Kingdom to go to dinner, Addison decided she finally knew which toy she wanted, so I took her into the shop on Main Street and the restroom while Craig took the twins in the double stroller and Ava to the Christmas tree to wait for us.

We weren’t separated 3 minutes when my watch began vibrating on my wrist and I saw it was Craig calling. He wouldn’t call me from the same street at Disney 3 minute after we separated and 3 minutes before we’d be back together unless it was urgent – a text is so much easier.

I knew. I knew the second I saw his name something was wrong, and I couldn’t find my phone in my bag fast enough. I answered, and the fear, panic, and terror in his voice made my heart stop.

“I can’t find Ava. She’s gone,” is all he said.

I grabbed Addison by the arm and ran out of the store without a word – I didn’t even know if she had anything in her hands or if I had all our belongings or what. I just needed to get out of the store. We ran down Mainstreet looking for her. Black leggings. Back and grey Minnie mouse shirt. Black and silver Michael Kors flip flops. Bright pink Hello Kitty fedora.

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Nothing. No sign of her. Mainstreet was packed. I had Addison by the arm, and we were running. I was pushing people, breaking up their groups, crying. Terrified. I spotted Craig by the tree running around with the double stroller calling Ava’s name.

He’d told her they were going to stop by the tree to wait for mommy when the twins started bickering, and he bent down to talk to them. Ava – we later learned – was so distracted by the tree that she said “Okay,” to Craig without hearing anything he said and she kept watching. Craig, taking her “Okay” for confirmation she knew the plan, didn’t even notice she kept walking when he was breaking up the fight between the babies.

She was gone. We were both hysterical.

We separated as he stayed by the tree to look in case she came back and I went to find a cast member. Find a cast member. Find a Disney cast member and tell them she’s missing. Describe her. Give her name. They have a system, they have protocol. They know what to do. They know how to handle this. Find a cast member.

As I’m running frantically trying to find a cast member, which is usually the easiest thing you can do at Disney, I realize that it was some sort of big club weekend in which thousands of people were all dressed in Disney ensembles similar to the dancers, the cast members, and other Disney employees. It was near impossible to find someone who actually worked there rather than someone who merely looked like a cast member.

That’s when I ran into a store to get a cast member from behind a counter. And that’s when my phone rang. My darling husband Craig Raiford on the screen. I answered. “I have her,” is all he said, and I took off running.

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By the tree, I saw my husband in his orange and blue Florida Gator polo shirt on the ground with Ava in his arms. They were both crying. I have never hugged a child that hard in my life. She said she was so scared. Based on how scared I was, I can’t even imagine how scared she was.

According to Ava, our sweet six-year-old, she just kept looking at the tree on Mainstreet and didn’t know daddy stopped. By the time she realized he wasn’t with her anymore, she said there were so many people and she’s so small she couldn’t see anything, so she stopped a man and told him she was lost.

We’ve always told our kids – a million and one times – what to do if they are ever separated from us. Find an employee of wherever we are, find a person with a lot of kids who seem happy. Find a police officer, or a medic, or a fireman, or a security guard. Tell them you’re lost, and tell them what we look like, where we were, and our names.

And she did. She found a man in a Florida State Seminoles shirt – she recognized the logo from the games we watched – and she asked him for help. And then he told us the rest. He told us that Ava was so impressive and brave. She was crying, but she told him she couldn’t find her daddy, and then she told him that he’s wearing an orange and blue Gator shirt, and that he had her twin babies with him in their red stroller. And then he took her to find the nearest cast member for help.

We are so proud of our girl. Six-years-old, and aside from some tears, she was calm, stoic, and handled herself like a champ. She handled herself so well, in fact, two grown men were impressed and couldn’t resist telling us we should be proud of her.

The grace of God was with us on Saturday, because another man saw the entire thing unfold when Ava stopped FSU to ask for help. He, wearing a Bama shirt, decided to follow to find a cast member. He didn’t say it out loud, but my take is that he followed because a little girl was lost from her family and asked a strange man for help and he wanted to be sure that strange man would, in fact, help her. That’s when FSU spotted a cast member, explained the story, and left Ava with the cast member to go to Guest Services. It’s also the moment he decided to look around and spotted a man with an orange and blue Gator polo and twins in a red stroller looking a little worse for the wear. He approached Craig and asked him if he was missing his little girl and when Craig said he was, he pointed to the cast member and to Ava.

And that’s when FSU told Craig he had one smart, brave little girl. She told him exactly was Craig was wearing, what color the stroller was, what the babies were wearing; everything. And that’s when Bama came up and told Craig he witnessed the entire thing, and Ava did everything right. She did it all right.

She did everything right. And because of that, we had her back in under 7 minutes. It was the longest 7 minutes of our lives, and I cannot even begin to describe the kind of fear we felt in that moment. Terror doesn’t even begin to cover it.

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare come to life.

But our girl remembered all the conversations we had with her about handling a situation just like this. Conversations I was certain she never listened to. Conversations I had to pry a response out of her following. Conversations she seemed to be more interested in her coloring, the scenery, the floor, the sky, being anywhere else but talking to us. She heard every word.

And that’s why I want to take a moment to tell you to talk to your kids. Talk to them about how to handle situations you never think you might experience. We are darn good parents. Our eyes are on our kids – and we would have put money on the fact we’d never lose a child in public. But we did. We did.

And I want to take another moment to thank the two men who helped our Ava. The two men who proved there are good people in the world even when the media wants us to believe otherwise. Two men in college football shirts who weren’t at home watching the game but at Disney with their families making memories and probably wishing there was a TV or two anywhere in the Magic Kingdom.

Thank you. I don’t know your names. I don’t know who you are. I never even saw your faces. You spoke to my husband while I was running around looking for our daughter, and you kept her safe. You are good people, and I am forever thankful to you both. Thank you for being at Disney. Thank you for helping our girl. Thank you for seeing a little girl with tears in her eyes and doing whatever it took to help her find her family.

Thank you. And thank God for putting those two men where they were that day so that our girl would be all right. Thank you. And talk to your kids. And by the witness who follows in a situation like this to be sure that help is really what’s being offered.

And Happy Thanksgiving week. Hug a little tighter this week. It’s good for your soul.