This far-flung family uses a clever competition to bridge the miles and build lasting memories.

Family Olympics
Credit: Illustration by Andrea D'Aquino

A spoon dangled from my husband's nose. My daughter Maggie, then age 8, balanced a butter knife on a fingertip. I attended to our youngest, Lucy, 3, then checked the timer on my watch. Before I could tell Maggie how long she had balanced the knife, though, I realized that her twin brother, Henry, determined to try a hurling event, was about to launch a fork-impaled cherry tomato across the table. I grabbed his hand with seconds to spare.

"Not in a restaurant," I said. "Not even for the Family Olympics."

Tom, the kids, and I had lived in Somalia, Kenya, and France, and now we were based in Djibouti, a tiny nation on the horn of Africa. Snorkeling in the Red Sea and strolling among camels had become the norm, while my parents mowed green grass or shoveled snow in Minnesota. Keeping in touch with our extended families was a significant challenge, especially when my siblings scattered to Oregon and South Carolina. Frequent e-mails and phone calls simply didn't have the bonding effect that shared activities do. I worried that we were missing out on making memories.

But then my dad launched the Pieh Family Olympics. Suddenly, oceans and deserts and time changes and culture shifts couldn't stop us from connecting.

Our first family games were held in 2008. Events ranged from taking a long family walk and keeping a list of everything we saw (donkeys, wild parrots, women in bright head scarves) to borderline outrageous contests like the food hurling challenge Henry had been about to attempt in the restaurant. (For this event, one cousin claimed the distance his dinner roll flew equaled how far the plane he was in had traveled while the roll was also airborne. After a chorus of protests, his score was thrown out.)

We tracked events and results in group e-mails, and my dad encouraged the grandchildren to design wacky contests. Young cousins took special pleasure in ordering aunts and uncles to toss raw eggs at one another, pictures required as proof. We spit watermelon seeds and took on a Boggle-style challenge to make as many words as possible out of our names. Encouragement, smack talk, and bragging zipped between continents.

I am proud to say that, with spoons on noses and knives on fingers, my family won the first Pieh Family Olympics. When my parents visited Djibouti for Christmas, my dad awarded us a little store-bought trophy and individual medals.

Rachel Pieh Jones and family

The twins, now 12, recently started boarding school in Kenya, and I understand even more the hollowness my parents feel with their grandchildren so far away. There is an emptiness in the house and in my heart. We talk on the phone, e-mail, and text. But I see another Family Olympics in our future, an opportunity to dream up new competitions and to laugh about crazy stunts.

We make no claims to being Olympians, but our games are pure gold nonetheless. With creativity, daring, and a bit of flying food, we can forge strong bonds, no matter how many miles stretch between us.

Rachel with husband, Tom, and kids in Djibouti

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of FamilyFun

Family Fun