The Saturday before we were to leave, we decided to follow through on an idea of my mother-in-law's and have some time with our nieces.
Home Depot was hosting a workshop where kids could make their own gingerbread man candy dishes, so we invited my sister-in-law with her three girls and took my brother's oldest while my other sister-in-law got her house ready for a showing.
We arrived at Home Depot with E, and signed her in. She received her package of supplies and her own little orange Home Depot apron, which she did not want to wear.
We started putting together her candy dish, but after about three taps of the hammer, I remembered how much E hates loud noises, and all the banging around her just made her cover her ears. Of course, it's hard to use a hammer when your hands are on your head, so after some unsuccessful coaxing for her participation, I nodded at Nate.
"Why don't you just finish it and then we can go paint?"
A couple taps here and there and he had whipped together the project, and I took her to the paint section as my sister-in-law entered with her little brood.
We went to say hello, and I smiled as I saw that her middle child, who had opened her birthday present from us the night before, had on her Frozen crown and braid, and her big smile was still on her face. Gotta love it when your gifts are successful, I smiled.
Nate got the other girls settled while I worked with E on painting her project. She lifted her hand with a dismayed expression on her face, showing me that she got some paint on one of her fingers. I wiped it off on her apron, and then almost immediately proceeded to sticking my finger in the paint as well. I smiled and held up my hand for her to see.
"See, I got paint on me too! No big deal," I said.
We finished up, and then watched as my sister-in-law's girls worked on their projects. E and I made a trip to the bathroom to wash her hands, and then when we got back my middle niece looked at me and held up her hand.
The entire thing was painted. The classic middle child, Em had decided that the best way to paint her project was to squirt paint on it and then rub it around using her hand instead of the paint brush. Her mom just shook her head and laughed.
Another trip to the bathroom for messy girls.
It made me smile as the oldest pair raced ahead, holding hands like they were best friends, and the middle child ran behind asking to join in. E just yanked her hand away, she didn't want to hold hands with the baby, she wanted to be with her friend.
"Hold my hand," I said to Em brightly, and she joined in. A line of four, we trotted down the hardware store aisle back to the rest of the group.
Not wanting the fun to end, we suggested going to a local garden center that has some fun stuff set up inside for kids.
"Do you want to go to Wallace's?" I asked E, and a smile lit up her face.
We all piled into our cars and then piled back out of them at the garden center, making another hand-holding line as we walked through the store portion and into greenhouse area. The girls had all been there before and knew just where to go, but we did have to stop along the way and get a picture of them all with a Santa statue.
Arriving at their favorite place, a giant square "sandbox" filled with corn, they stripped off their shoes and socks and hopped in. Tractors. Buckets. Hands were flying through the yellow kernels, and some stuck to their clothes.
They buried each other. They dumped corn all around. They found beads hidden in the corn. They smiled. They laughed. They had an absolute ball.
And so did we, just watching them.
There's something awfully sweet not only about spending time with your nieces, but about your nieces from different sides of the family coming together and having fun. It was an absolute treasure to behold.
We finished off our time together with a train ride, during which my sister-in-law was told "We don't need an adult, Mom," and then we parted ways.
That afternoon was filled with presents and the evening we met up again for a Christmas Walk downtown, but that morning is what sticks most in my mind. Those smiles. I'll cherish that for a long time.