Military mom gets Christmas suprise: her whole family home

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Neil Johnson
December 21, 2013

JANESVILLE—Janesville military mom Patti Zahn was so surprised Saturday evening that she could only muster a squeak. Then she cried.

Under bright holiday lights that hung from trees and bushes at the wooden pond overlook at Janesville's Rotary Botanical Gardens, Zahn's two adult children, Tyler Mason and Amber Nowicki, her son-in-law, Brandon Nowicki, and her three grandchildren came walking out one by one. Zahn couldn't decide whom to hug first.

It was the first time in seven years since Zahn has had her children in one place, at one time for Christmas.

Zahn wasn't expecting the Christmas surprise, but it was what she had hoped for. Her son Tyler, 24, a U.S. Marine working dog handler, has been stationed with his daughter, Danielle, 4, in Okinawa, Japan, for more than two years. Tyler has been a Marine since he was 18.

Amber, 25, and her husband, Brandon, who is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, live with their children, Alexander, 5, and Mariah, 2, in Somers Point, N.J. They have traveled for deployments all over the country for several years.

Zahn told Amber in passing this fall that she dreamed of having everyone—all the kids and grandkids—together at Christmas. It would be the first time it happened since Tyler and Amber were in high school and living in Orfordville. That was before Tyler and Amber began living military lives of deployments, moves and long periods away from family. 

“We never grew up military. The life, the way it works, it's still baffling for my mom (Patti). It's still very new for her,” Amber said. “Time doesn't stop. You see that. You blink your eyes and a baby you haven't seen in year is running around talking in full sentences.” 

Patti had an inkling that her kids would be home for the holidays at some point this year. Their plan Saturday was to surprise their mom with a grand reunion; they wanted to see the look on her face when the whole family came parading out.

“Seeing all her kids and grandkids together with her for the first time, it's been way too long for this to happen,” Tyler said.

Amber said she and Tyler chose to stage the reunion outside at the Rotary Gardens because of the gardens' holiday light show, which features thousands of lights hanging from trees and bushes and decorating the snowy paths. It would be a great spot for a Christmas family portrait.

The whole family wasn't supposed to even be in town for a few more days, but they fudged about their arrival time to keep Patti guessing and to surprise her.

Amber came up with a clever ruse to trick Patti. The Rotary Gardens staff, which helped plan the surprise, concocted a phony health emergency. They called Patti and told her that her sister, Debbie Von Rotz, was at the Rotary Gardens and was in serious pain with a kidney stone.

Debbie actually was at Rotary Gardens to witness the family's reunion, but her kidneys weren't acting up. 

When Patti showed up, she was immediately concerned for Debbie and her fake health problem. But then her children and their children came parading out. It was clear this wasn't about kidneys.

Instead, she got huge hugs and a full family portrait with the shining pond at the Rotary Gardens as a backdrop.

While Patti beamed with happiness and shook with surprise, a photographer, and two news reporters captured the moment. Her grandchildren ran in circles around a TV news camera.

“I'm elated. I'm humming with joy,” Patti said.

Her Christmas wish now a reality, Patti immediately began planning the rest of the holidays.

“I just want to sit in a room for hours and hours and talk with all of them,” she said. “And I need to make them a big meal to fatten them up. They're too thin.”

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