My two daughters, Ella and Clara, jumped out of the car and raced over the grass to the door of their grandparents' house. Mylar balloons bobbed behind them as they ran. Don and I followed close behind, rushing to catch up. After months of planning, we had arrived at my in-laws house on the morning of their 50th wedding anniversary. We had pulled the kids out of school and flown across the country from Texas to Pennsylvania.
It was a secret. They were not expecting us. They had planned a quiet day at home and were wondering why we hadn't at least sent a card.
My husband Don is an only child. He is also a bit of a prodigy: a star high school athlete, valedictorian of his class, the first in his family to go to college, (and not just any college; Don graduated from MIT), and the first to go to medical school. His parents are crazy-proud of him, and yet they only see him a couple times a year given the distance, and lack of direct airline flights, between Austin and Scranton.
The only people who come close to capturing as much love and affection from Don's parents are Ella and Clara, the only grandchildren. Don's parents were instantly smitten from the moment they met their granddaughters, during visits to Austin when each child was a few weeks old. Ella and Clara are equally devoted; Clara was in tears after her last visit with them, longing to be together more often. They write letters and sometimes spend hours on Skype when they can't visit in person.
Before we showed up at their door Friday morning, we were worried that someone would reveal our secret, ruining the surprise. Don's extended family and his mother's lifelong best friend knew about our visit because we had invited Don's aunts and uncles to a party – another surprise – the next night. Two of Don's aunts had helped as consultants and party planners. Someone was bound to let it slip.
We were worried, too, that our plan could fall apart. Would Don's father be feeling well, having just returned from a prolonged hospitalization a few weeks ago? His health had been tenuous for months after a stroke and surgery. Would they even be home when we arrived, or would they be grocery shopping or at a doctor's appointment? Would they be in the mood for visitors – noisy, last-minute, messy visitors who would barge into the house uninvited?
But when she saw the kids at her door, with her son standing behind them, holding colorful flowers, Don's mom was flabbergasted – and beyond delighted. "Oh my God! Oh my God!" was all she could say. No doubt. Our secret had remained intact. She called to Don's dad who joined us for tearful, excited hugs at the door. We were laughing and crying and stepping on each other's feet and hugging some more. "You're here!" It seemed impossible.
We barely stopped smiling all day. We shared the other surprises: a set of DVDs that Don had compiled from hundreds of videos on our phones, little treats Clara had wrapped in a cheerful yellow bag, plans for dinner that night and a family banquet the next night. Then Don helped his mom buy and install a new TV, replacing the ancient one – an "antique," I said – that they had in their bedroom. Don's father was almost as excited about the TV as he was about our visit.
Our dinner that night – at a lovely Italian restaurant in nearby Dunmore – was just the right ending to the day. And the extended family celebration on Saturday was the ideal way to honor 50 years of marriage and partnership. Don's aunts and uncles and a few close cousins and friends helped create a magical evening.
I am grateful that I could share in such a joyful surprise. My in-laws kept thanking me all weekend for making the effort to pull together the trip and the activities, but they didn't realize how thankful I was to them, for giving Don, our kids, and me such an opportunity. And now I have a new, rare addition to my treasured All-Time Favorite Memories.