Weekend escape.

We’re creatures of habit, especially when we find ourselves looking to get away for a few days. We tend to have one or two default travel locations, places where we know we will instantly find something resembling relaxation… maybe even rejuvenation. This past weekend, though, I rediscovered a forgotten love I hadn’t visited in years: Chicago. It was a fantastic four days of wander, wonder, friendship, and music. I am, once again, smitten.

Here are a few snapshots from the trip, all taken with my iPhone and posted to Instagram:

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Until we meet again, Chicago. Soon, it will be soon.

[For more pictures of Chicago and various other life moments — that means lots of dog pics — you can find me on Instagram by clicking here or searching for my user name, @jeffreyaward.]

Retreat.

For the last handful of years, we’ve escaped to Scottsdale during the week of Thanksgiving. It’s our oasis, our designated place to relax, restore, and reconnect. And we love it there. When we were there just a week or two ago, I Instagrammed the trip, but thought I’d share a few of those pictures here, too, for those who have yet to see them.

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We’re already looking forward to a return trip in 2013.

Service.

James Ward (my grandfather) and his brother, John Ward | 1944

Both my father and grandfather served in the military. I knew this fact when I was growing up, although neither really ever talked about it much. I do remember that my grandfather had an old picture of a navy ship in the basement when I was a kid. I’m sure I asked him about it at one point or another (at least, I hope I did), although I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t recall his answer.

A couple years ago, the local paper interviewed some veterans in the area. In just a few short paragraphs, I came to know more about my grandfather’s experience than I’d learned in all my years prior. I decided to make a point to ask him about the article and his experiences, a gesture that was admittedly long overdue. To my surprise, he sat down and told me a few stories. While recounting what I’m sure was an extremely sanitized version of the things he witnessed all those decades ago, he began to tear up and had to stop. Death witnessed, friends lost, the horror still alive in his eyes… there it all was, right on the surface.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the fact that countless men and women over the years have made the decision to serve our county — I certainly did — but it was more of an abstract theory for which I felt no personal frame of reference. That day, though, the look in my grandfather’s eyes was the instant frame of reference that I needed.

For each and every one who serve and have served, on this Veterans Day and every day, I have nothing but gratitude. Thank you.

Backdrop.

I’ve been out of sorts this week. Our house has been in complete disarray, a result of our decision to have almost every square inch of interior real estate repainted at once. I don’t deal with disarray well, which will come as no surprise to those of you who have encountered my OCD ways, so having our house — the one place where I usually can find calm and rest — all torn apart and disorganized has left me strangely off balance. Work has been more demanding, too, as I’ve been caught up in the process of closing one fiscal year and beginning anew, in more ways than one. And so, I’ve just been left a bit depleted and disillusioned.

Then this morning, after less sleep than I hoped, I woke up early. The house was quiet, the dogs were still asleep. I’m not a morning person as a rule, but there was just such an undeniable peace in the air. Thankfully, our house is slowly being put back together, there’s a beautiful new color on the walls (yes, my wife was right), and the scene out our back window served as the perfect morning backdrop.

Not long after taking the picture above, the fog began to lift off the pond as morning gave way to day. The sun is now shining, the air is crisp, and I can now see beyond the mark that was only vaguely recognizable a few hours ago. The perfect backdrop has been a perfect and much needed reminder.

A little hometown pride.

Growing up in a little town like Waldo was a bit of a mixed bag. As a child, Waldo was an idyllic playground begging to be explored, with adventures only limited by the extent of my imagination. Every barn, a foreign country. Each creek, a mighty river. I could walk home from school or bike to the Dairy Bar for an ice cream without a second thought.

Then, as a teenager, those same surroundings became an almost unbearable prison sentence, the one thing standing between me and my big, bad future. I plotted my escape, counted the years, then months, then days, and never looked back.

Now here we are, a couple decades (!) later, and the little hometown of my youth has become the perfect reminder of history and of family.

Just — please — do us a favor and resist the urge to ask Where’s Waldo? Because now you know.

Go ahead. Wiki it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldo,_Ohio

A thousand words.

Grandpa Jim & siblings | Late 1920s

Every day we log on to Facebook and see pictures of our friends and family… of their kids, their pets, their random observations, and more times than not, the turkey sandwich they’re getting ready to have for lunch. The images are inescapable and, often times, forgotten in the time it takes us to scroll down the page. Sure, a select few make it from pixels-on-a-screen to a frame on the bedside table, but it’s easy to become desensitized to the notion that a picture captures an exact moment in time.

Jim & Millie | 1940

Several years ago we decided to throw a surprise 80th birthday party for my grandfather. Part of the preparation involved gathering pictures of my grandpa from various willing relatives, with the goal of building a photographic timeline of his life. I wasn’t sure what we’d be able to piece together, as my sole memory of “old pictures” when I was growing up was my grandmother talking about how some day she was going to put them all in chronological albums and label them. She was big on labels, my grandmother, perhaps proof that a little of my OCD trickled down the family tree from her. I don’t think the pictures ever made it into those oft-mentioned mythical albums, though, as her memory faded long before the task was checked off the TO DO list.

Jim & Millie | 1942

The pictures we were able to gather, though, were a wonderful surprise. Once the party was over, before returning the pictures to their rightful owners — I had to sign some sort of blood oath with a few of the donators — we made sure to scan a copy of each and every one, labeling them to the best of our collective abilities.

I’m really not overly sentimental when it comes to physical possessions. Running from a burning house, I’d have a hard time listing a half dozen things that I’d be sure to grab. Some of the pictures that were collected for that birthday party, though — many of them now enlarged, framed, and decorating our walls — have become my most prized possessions. Maybe it’s because they give me a sense of history or a feeling of roots. Perhaps they serve as a bridge to the past in a way that allows me to connect with the untold experiences of my loved ones. Often, though, it’s just because they make me smile.

Jim & sons | 1954

While I’m sure every picture has a story, I don’t know any of them for sure. I imagine that most of these pictures mark some sort of special occasion… a scheduled annual family photo, an Easter Sunday before leaving for church, or the arrival of a new bundle of joy. I love being able to recognize the same glimmers of individual personality, even in an old grainy photograph, that I still see to this day in my flesh and blood loved ones.

I imagine my grandmother often serving as family photographer, directing every pose and chastising the uncooperative. I look for signs of the same “would you please just take the blasted picture” rumblings that I routinely hear from certain teenagers (and yes, certain 41 year olds) whenever my mother pulls out a camera at Christmas dinner. I wonder what became of the photos once they were developed, if they were put in frames on the wall or kept on a bedside table. And then, when did the photos come down from those walls or out of those frames, only to be put in a box to be sorted at a later date? What did they think would become of them? Did they have any idea how meaningful those pictures would become, decades later, to future generations just looking for a connection?

So here are just a couple of my treasured possessions, a few small moments captured on film that mean the world to me. There’s not a turkey sandwich in the bunch.