Grandma’s Christmas tradition: a gift of travel

Lu Ann Williams begins her holiday shopping months before Christmas, but it’s not about filling a closet with toys for her two grandchildren.

She’s doing research online, but it’s not with eBay. She’s collecting shopping materials, but they are about cities, not catalogs.

What she and husband Gary, who live in Madison, end up with will educate as well as entertain, spark creativity as well as engage problem-solving skills.

They also are laying the groundwork for great memories that their grandchildren, Jill and Melissa Heilman, can savor for a lifetime.

For the girls, ages 7 and 10, Christmas comes in December … and January or February. That’s when they take a two- or three-night trip with their grandparents, a trip both thoughtful and adultlike.

“We decided the best gift we could give would be our time together,” Lu Ann says. So on Christmas Eve 2002, the granddaughters each got luggage, a disposable camera, matching pajamas and an invitation.

They spent a weekend in Milwaukee, seeing their first IMAX film, visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum and Mitchell Park Domes. Jill liked the Basilica at St. Josaphat. Melissa went on a museum ride that was a little scary.

“Ama” and “Papa” took them to the Amtrak station, too, to watch the trains arrive. “That gave us the idea that it might be fun to take a train somewhere,” Lu Ann says.

One night is a special dinner night: “We bring a fancy outfit and practice our manners.” That happened at the Hyatt’s revolving rooftop restaurant.

The couple has taught their grandchildren how to calculate tips for waitstaff, and how to determine the change to expect when paying a bill. Over breakfasts, the girls study maps to figure out how to best get from one attraction to another.

The sisters keep a log of their adventures. They also are learning about photography: how quickly a camera can run out of film, how some types of pictures turn out better than others.

A year later, their gift was the same (minus the luggage). The destination was Chicago and the mode of transportation was a train. Lu Ann’s poster invitation contained pictures of what they could do and where they would stay.

There was a picture of an American Girl doll, the John Hancock skyscraper, a place to go to church. “I’ll know where we’ll go, where we’ll have lunch and dinner, get tickets in advance – so we can avoid lines,” Lu Ann says of her planning.

They stayed at the upscale Park Hyatt, which has a concierge for children (a “kidsierge”). That meant a behind-the-scenes tour of the hotel’s security system, kitchen, laundry rooms; a coupon booklet (for a free soda, a treat from the pastry chef, a chef’s hat); child-sized bathrobes and slippers to wear; backpacks to take home.

Despite the attention, Lu Ann says the hotel then had no children’s menu for dinner. The chef’s offer to make macaroni and cheese was accepted, and “it arrived in the most beautiful tureen.”

The grandmother’s description makes the girls giggle, because the pasta was made with goat cheese. “They did pretty well,” Lu Ann says of her granddaughters. “We are always on our best behavior.”

Chicago’s more casual Ed Debevic’s diner was a more comfortable fit. Both girls got paper hats to wear. “Take them off, and you’ll have to do the dishes,” they were told, teasingly.

Last year, Lu Ann decided to offer clues but no destination on Christmas Eve. “All aboard,” her invitation said. “We’ll leave Columbus on Feb. 4 for a mystery destination.” She listed a longitude and latitude, knowing that Jill was learning these concepts in school.

“This can be a fun museum to visit,” she wrote, next to one picture. “It’s a 5½ hour ride,” another note said. There were pictures of Snoopy and amusement rides.

So this year the family headed to St. Paul, Minn., for a three-night getaway. The train ride included first class accommodations (under $400 total, Lu Ann noted, including meals) and a tour of the dining car kitchen.

The foursome stayed at the landmark St. Paul Hotel and arrived during the city’s Winter Carnival. They had breakfast at the historic Mickey’s railroad car diner, spent a day at Mall of America and Camp Snoopy, attended a symphony concert.

Jill carried a 5-pound Lake Mendota fossil to the Science Museum of Minnesota, to have it examined by staff (her grandmother had read about this opportunity online).

What else? The girls always get a room that is connected to, but separate from, their grandparents. So they can watch TV as long as they want and go to sleep when they want.

The youngsters show appreciation in creative ways, like when they wore wigs and presented “room service” – treats they snuck along from home.

Or they’ll leave notes under the door, like: “Here’s some gum to give you energy to make it through another day with us.”

These are the grandparents’ keepsakes. For the girls, it’s shoeboxes full of napkins, notes, pictures, receipts and programs.

“Our goal is to not just make it a lark,” says Lu Ann, a former elementary school teacher. “It is to enrich ourselves and learn something. We have to be smarter, somehow, when we come back.”

The trips, she observes, also become a gift to Shelley and Tom Heilman. They are the girls’ parents, who get a free weekend out of the deal.

Where to next? The family would love to hear your ideas, so please send them this way. Please keep them about one tank of gas in distance. If it’s a lot more than that, well, the girls have their own ideas.

Like Hawaii, perhaps by submarine.