Scents of maple and spiced fruit linger in the air as I take the stairs two-at-a-time, making it to the kitchen mere seconds before my twin Geoff.
I grab the plate with the largest stack of pancakes and swipe the homegrown maple syrup out from under Geoff's fingers.
"How do you always beat me Goldie?" he grumbles as we waits for Mom to add two more snowflake-shaped pancakes to his pile of golden glory.
My manic laughter causes 2 year old Emery to giggle.
"I'm the oldest, fastest and best pancake sniffer in this house." My boasts don't count for much since Geoff is the college track start and I am just the university librarian's assistant.
"By two minutes and 27 seconds sis" he counters, chugging his milk in one gulp. "Besides, the only reason you always win is because I sleep in on Christmas Eve and you're up when Mrs. Davidson's rooster crows."
Humph I grunt with all the maturity of a twenty year old. "I still won."
Both Mom and Dad laugh and my sister-in-law Maribeth high fives me across Emery's head. Not to be left out, Emery takes a large scoop of applesauce and tosses it across the table, landing on Geoff's pajama pants.
"See, even my beautiful niece knows whose the better twin."
My laughter quickly subsides though when a pat of butter is smeared on my right cheek.
Oh, it's on now.
I scoop up some green grapes out of the fruit salad bowl and launch them at my brother's head. One flies past his shoulder but the other one plops down into his bedhead hair.
"Marigold Viola and Geoffrey Leonel, you stop this instant." Our mother Everly retorts sternly.
"Yes ma'am" we both say, bowling our heads to our plates.
I scoop some strawberries and blueberries into my mouth. Their sweet flavors burst through and my mind starts to catalogue the different desserts I could make if my parents would let me go to culinary school.
So immersed in the sensations, I am thrown into left field when a grape and slice of banana slam into my forehead before dropping into the remains of my syrup puddle.
Laughter fills the room but its the deep, gravely sound that has my head snapping up. Maribeth has her phone on FaceTime and my older brother Al is laughing with his assistant and VP of Marketing joining in.
"Good one Mom" he remarks, smirking at me from half way across the world.
"Just wait until your assignment ends Mr. Big Time CEO, I'll be ready." I declare this without much heat. Everyone knows Al is the prankster in the family. Which helped him develop a popular gaming system and games, catapulting him to CEO at age 27.
We all chat a few minutes before promising to call back in five hours.
My walk is more of a waddle with all the extra clothing I have layered on. But hey, it's Christmastime in Vermont and we have seven feet of snow outside. Can't be too prepared for that.
Every Christmas Eve, we do a family scavenger hunt. Mom and Dad take turns creating it and this year was Mom's turn.
We all split up into teams. Dad and Geoff and Al and I. Maribeth and Emery will have their own treasure hunt inside the house since Maribeth is worried Emery will catch a chill.
Thankfully the connection is half way decent. and I am able to pull up video chat on my phone so Al can have a clear view too.
"You have 1 hour to complete the hunt. The first team to complete all 7 clues and make it to the Mystery Prize wins. All clues are hidden outside and within our 4 acres."
On your mark....get set...GO!" Mom screams into the crips air and we all take off at a sprint.
It is a race to the the large pine tree where Mom or Dad always hangs the first clue. I arrive second and rip open a bright red envelope before reading the clue to AL.
"If all the world's a stage, then Santa must be in the play."
Al frowns for a moment then I see the metaphorical light bulb blink bright. "The barn loft!"
Dad and Geoff are already running in the direction so I take off around the otherside of the house.
"You're shaking me everywhere Sis" Big Bro complains.
"I'm running genius" I yell, my breaths coming out as large gulps. Darn my love/hate relationship with exercise.
Even though Dad and Geoff beat me to the loft, Al and I are able to figure out the second clue before they can.
The race is on until we reach the clue that will lead us to the big prize. We have seven minutes left to figure it out and beat Dad and Geoff.
"When we follow the stars, they always bring us back from afar. To lead the way and guide our path, we must always remember to laugh."
Al chuckles wryly. "She outdid herself this year. I have no idea."
Follow the stars, follow the stars, laugh and guide and path and...
"I know!" My scream echos off the frozen needled trees and scares a couple birds.
Dad and Geoff are snarling down at the same clue but not making any headway. Not wanting to lead Dad or Geoff to the prize, I take off in the opposite direction of where I want to go.
"Where the heck are you going?" Al asks, his eyes closed while the phone swings and jiggles as my arms pump.
Making my way around the frozen pond, I finally head toward the slope of dead grass which heads toward the road. Out front is the family farm sign: Starway Farms.
Al gasps, all excited now that he understands. "Hurry, I bet they are gaining on us." I sneak a quick peak over my shoulder and see Geoff sprinting, Dad lagging behind with red cheeks and his scarf almost ripped off by a gust of wind.
Passing the sign, I run to the light-up display featuring the Star of Bethlehem and the manger scene. There, next to the feet of the laughing drummer boy, is a mahogany box etched with stars.
Angling the phone just so, AL and I open the box together.
Inside is the Starway poem, written by my grandfather for my grandmother when they founded the farm. And underneath the treasured writing are a dozen homemade buckeyes and a gift certificate to tour the Henderson Chocolate factory.
Al gloats gleefully as Geoff and Dad mope around, sneaking peaks at the little chocolate addictions. Smiling, I take Dad's phone and snap a quick picture of Dad, Geoff, and Al as Geoff hold's his video up.
Agreeing to share, we split up the buckeyes as I read the poem. Another family tradition.
At the end of the poem is note from Mom, a reminder of love and family.
"The stars shine bright and guide the way, through harsh winds and darkened skies. Where even the sky pours down its treasured gifts of ice crystals and soft, downy flakes.
But do not fear the ladened hour and cold which chills the face. For the heart which knows the trail love goes, will find home tonight at Staraway."