With one son in seminary in Kansas and another at the University of Miami, we knew we wanted to spend Christmas together. Steven wanted us to visit him in Florida, and since the rest of us had never been there, that's where we decided to spend the holidays. My husband, son Andrew, and I could hardly wait for the sun, surf, and sand. Renting a house on Marco Island worked for all five of us. We would have a Christmas quite different from our traditional Christmases, when the children were little.
At 4:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve, the three of us headed out of our West Chester home - our two cats, the mail, and the newspapers would be taken care of. It was 13 degrees when we pulled out of our driveway in the early-morning darkness. With sandwiches packed for the journey, our only stop - other than for gas and potty breaks - was at a Wendy's in Micanopy, Fla., for Christmas Eve dinner.
Twenty hours after we started, we were on Marco Island. It was 72 degrees a half-hour into Christmas Day.
Steven and his brother Eric soon met us at the house. They both rent rooms in other people's homes, and when Steven saw the large-screen TV and big family room, he felt right at home.
We ate Christmas dinner poolside. Instead of turkey with all the trimmings, we had sausage, salad, and potatoes served on paper plates decorated with snowmen to remind us of the chilly north. The Christmas tree was a house plant surrounded by our Christmas tree skirt. The stockings did not hang from the mantel over the fireplace; instead, books and games held them in place on the bookcases.
Our traditional Christmas breakfast - sausage casserole, OJ, and orange-glazed rolls - was polished off with as much gusto on the 26th as it had always been on the 25th.
Instead of hibernating in front of the fireplace and the TV, we explored Everglades National Park by boat and canoe, fished in the Gulf of Mexico, soaked up a few rays, and, most of all, enjoyed each other's company.
An Everglades park ranger led us through mangroves, where we ate lunch in our canoes and she told us about the wildlife. We learned the history of the mangroves and their importance for the Florida coastline.
We saw dolphins, osprey, egrets, great blue herons, little blue herons, sea stars, and kingfishers. One day, my husband and sons went deep-sea fishing and brought home their catch - grouper and snapper.
On New Year's Day, we packed up seashells, fishing gear, and memories to last another year, and sadly left Marco Island for home. As we headed back to frigid Pennsylvania, we dropped Steven off in Miami to get back to classes.
We knew, though, that we had had one more opportunity to celebrate family and to renew ourselves in each other. We had just given each other the best Christmas gift of all.
Patricia Verbovszky lives in West Chester, Chester County.