Our NYC trip over Thanksgiving

Every year for Thanksgiving, for as long as I can remember, just about every relative on my mother's side would gather for an enormous day-long celebration of food, fun and family.

Since Grandma and Grandpa Brighton had eight kids, that has created quite a gathering. At last count, that's a maximum of 106 people. Typically, since not everyone can make it every year, we average about 85 people.

My Uncle Dick and Aunt Pat have hosted the gathering the past several years, mainly because their house is able to accommodate such a large group. Each family brings at least one dish to go along with the four turkeys and two hams.

It's my favorite time of the year, but this year we skipped it in favor of visiting my brother, Marc, his wife, Casey, and their kids, Lincoln and Violet. You see, Marc was making his Broadway debut in "Elf: The Musical" and we just simply couldn't miss that.

We planned it for Thanksgiving to take advantage of the days off. And, since we were going to be there at that time, then why not go see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade! And since we would be in Manhattan for the parade, then we'll stay on the island all day and see Marc's show that same night.

We left on Tuesday night after Parent-Teacher conferences and rolled into the Super 8 in Clearfield, Pennsylvania at about 1:30 a.m. Woke up the next morning, enjoyed the complimentary continental breakfast and were back on the road by about 10:30 a.m. About 4 hours later we made it into Maplewood, New Jersey, where Marc and his family bought a house this past summer after having lived in Manhattan for many years before that.

A quick aside: It had been a long time since we had packed for a long trip like this without having the luxury of putting all the gear in the camper. Our Trailblazer EXT needed the HitchHaul tray on the back, plus the rooftop cargo carrier.

Anyway, we very easily found Marc's place (thank you GPS!). Casey, Lincoln and Violet were waiting on the front steps for us. It seems 3-year-old Lincoln was beside himself with anticipation for his "cousins!" Violet, not yet 1, didn't seem to care one way or the other.

Marc was not home as he was at a matinee performance of his musical. But there was no evening performance, so we celebrated Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday night. It was great fun helping Casey in the kitchen, this being her first time cooking up an entire Thanksgiving meal, especially when she was completely grossed out when she had to rub butter on the bird. We even thought this would make for a great reality show of "Casey's Culinary Adventures."

We stayed up late catching up with each other for as much as we dared since Thursday was going to be a long, long day that would start at about 4:45 a.m. and not end until midnight.

The early wake-up call was because we needed to catch the first train into Manhattan. We needed to catch the first train because we've been told you need to be there as early as possible to get a decent spot to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. That advice couldn't be any truer! The train got into Penn Station at about 6:45 a.m., we started walking north to the parade route, only to be detoured a few blocks because everything around Macy's is completely blocked off to all pedestrians and traffic.

At about 7 a.m. we found ourselves back on the parade route (6th Avenue) and started to walk north to try and find any spot that wasn't already 20 people deep. But, already there were too many people and we were going nowhere fast. So we took a self-imposed detour around the gridlock by going to 5th Avenue, then up several blocks to 42nd Street, where we turned left to head back to the parade route.

Success! The police had just barricaded the end of 42nd Street at its intersection with 6th Avenue, so we found a spot only 4 people back from the barricade. The parade heads down 7th Avenue and turns onto 42nd Street before then turning onto 6th Avenue, which meant the floats and bands and balloons would be heading right at us.

By this time it's 7:30 a.m. The parade doesn't start until 9 a.m., and it won't reach our location until 9:45 a.m. So, we had some time to kill. My 10-year-old son, Ben, and I killed some time by waiting in a 1:15-hour line at a Starbuck's for some hot chocolate and pastries. With beverages and doughnuts in hand, we navigated our way back to our spot. Already there were about 15-20 rows of people behind us. By the time the parade started, there would be people behind us as far as we could see, easily 75-100 rows.

The anticipation before the parade was great! And as soon as the motorcycle police came down 42nd Street, lights flashing and sirens wailing, everyone was clapping and cheering and hooting and hollering.

After them, the Purdue Marching Band and the huge and colorful Turkey float (which I believe is the oldest float in the parade) got everything going. After that it was a blur of huge balloons, marching bands and colorful floats. Sometimes these floats had celebrities on them, and on more than one occasion I had to ask people around me who that famous person was.

The parade was great. I could bore you with details, but suffice to say the balloons were incredible (probably the best part). Everyone walking in the parade, from the balloon handlers to the clowns to the marching band members to the float walkers, were all grinning from ear to ear, waving cheerily and wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving — and there weren't any TV cameras around so you know it was genuine!

Another highlight of the parade was when Ben emptied his bladder in his empty hot chocolate cup, right there where we were standing. As I said, we were surrounded by tens of thousands of people, the nearest public restroom was a good block away (which probably had another hour-long line). So I told him to just let 'er fly right then and there. Ben knelt down on the pavement, positioned the cup and only splashed his sister's boots just a little bit. We were so tightly packed together that no one noticed, and now we have a great story to tell!

Santa Claus finished the parade off in style. He was energetic, enthusiastically waving to everyone on both sides of the street and just a delightful way to cap off the parade. He passed us by and the parade ended just a few minutes later with three balloons, each saying "Believe." I don't think anything could have been more appropriate since this is the first year all of our children have reached that "magical threshold" age.

The parade now done, the crowd clearing out (surprisingly, they did so very quickly) we next sought out a restaurant. We'd been told that we would need to make reservations because many of the 3 million people at the parade would also be looking for a restaurant. Well, we didn't have reservations and I was not looking forward to waiting for a table. We'd just spent the last six hours on our feet (with Ben on my shoulders for much of that) so we all needed to take a load off.

Again, fortune smiled upon us. Marc had suggested Dave & Busters, mainly because it was big and nearby (just down 42nd Street between 7th and 8th avenues). We headed that way and were seated right away! better yet, we were seated in front of big-screen TVs so we got to see our hapless Detroit Lions take on the New England Patriots.

We didn't eat a big lunch, as we were going to meet Marc later that day for dinner. But after a good hour or so we set out to see more NYC sights. First stop: the Rockefeller Center with the famous ice skating rink and big Christmas tree. Our path led us through Times Square, so we decided to stroll through the Toys R Us store.

Did I say stroll? I meant to say grow increasingly frustrated as it was so jam-packed with people that you couldn't turn around without bumping into someone. Come to think of it, maybe that's why we got a table so quickly at the restaurant — the 3 million people went to Toys R Us. It was neat seeing the four-story Ferris wheel in the lobby, the Lego buildings were cool and the lack of a line for the men's restroom was nice, but the best part was making it through the exit doors.

Back outside and by now a steady drizzle of rain had started to fall. It would continue, for the most part, the rest of the day and night. No biggie, though.

After a little bit of getting lost, we found our way to Rockefeller Center. Not as many people there was I would have thought, so we were able to find a spot on a railing to watch the people trying to skate on the ice rink. The ice looked pretty rough, and so did 99 percent of the skaters.

From there it was just a short walk over to St. Patrick's Cathedral. On the way we enjoyed the decorated windows of Saks 5th Avenue (or maybe it was Lord & Taylor). The Cathedral was, as always, simply stunning. The arches, the altars, the windows, the Stations of the Cross, the statues — evertyhing contributes to such a level of reverence that it's hard to describe. I took notice that anytime a Pope has visited the U.S., he has celebrated Mass at St. Patrick's.

We also noticed the lack of respect by certain people. Two young girls were allowed to roam freely on the main altar, even standing on and playing in the Cardinal's chair and running up and down the stairs leading into the pulpit. Whether Catholic or not, everyone else in the Cathedral displayed an appropriate level of respect, but we were very disappointed in the lack of parenting in that situation.

Our time in St. Patrick's also allowed us another opportunity to rest our legs, plus put in a few prayers for Angie's dad, who was in the hospital. (He has since been released.)

From the Cathedral we walked up 5th Avenue to FAO Schwarz, the toy store made famous in the movie "Big" when Tom Hanks and that other dude played chopsticks by dancing on the Big Piano.

Shuffling through FAO was a replay of what we went through at Toys R Us. At one point we watched a woman intentionally ram her stroller into the ankles of a man in front of her before passing him. And he acted like nothing had happened! After another trip to the bathroom, we made for the exit. We did enjoy the doorman, dressed up like a wooden soldier, who said good bye to everyone with a song in his heart and a dancing teddy bear in his hands.

We were going to try and stroll through the Mac store, which is right outside FAO, but saw it, too, was packed with people. Skipping that, we simply trekked back from where we came to meet up with Marc outside the Hirschfeld Theater, where we would see him make his on-stage Broadway debut in just a couple of hours.

Marc took us to a great little restaurant — again, immediate seating — so we enjoyed a nice dinner together before his show. After finishing our meal we headed over to the theater, eagerly awaiting the curtains to rise.

I should mention that it was purely by chance that we got to Marc make his on-stage Broadway debut. He is one of two male swings for the show, which means he only takes the stage if one of the actors is injured, sick or otherwise cannot perform that night. As fate would have it, one actor tweaked his calf muscle a few days ago, and Marc and the other swing took turns filling in. Marc's first turn just happened to be the same performance that we were going to see.

As you might have guessed, "Elf: The Musical" is based on the movie. The musical was very entertaining, but truth be told my eyes were glued on Marc every time he was on stage. I was so proud and so happy for him! To use a sports analogy, if musical theater is like baseball, then performing on Broadway is like playing in the Major Leagues. Marc can now say he's among the best, and it was such a joy to see him so happy afterward.

Despite the parade and Ben peeing in a cup, Marc's show was easily the highlight of our day.

The rest of our vacation was pretty uneventful compared to Thanksgiving on Manhattan. Friday was a very, very casual affair (we saw "Megamind"), but we did manage to squeeze in another thrill on Saturday, before we headed back home that evening. Marc was able to have Luke, my 13-year-old son and budding trumpet player, sit in with the orchestra during the first act of that day's matinee performance. Needless to say, Luke was spectacularly happy (and his band teacher, too)! While Luke was getting his music on, Angie, Ben, Hannah and I went to Roxy's Delicatessen in Times Square for some huge slices of cheesecake. How huge? The four of us couldn't finish two slices (one was strawberry and the other marble).

The rest of the trip was spent driving back home. We stayed overnight in Clarion, Pennsylvania and made it back home mid-afternoon.

Final thought: That just might have been our best vacation ever!