Being in a military family, Dustin and I have seen many regional New Year’s celebrations, but none has been as intimate and memorable as the one we experienced here in Maine last week. It began in Bangor with a downtown celebration, and it ended in Freeport with two nights alone (thanks, Grandma and Grandpa!) at the Harraseeket Inn. In between, while the stores pulled down their holiday decorations and put clearance tags on things we’d just bought at full price the week before, I was reminded of what really matters. Namely, all the things that can’t be purchased. But “peace and quiet” are nice too, and in my world, they are in short supply.

First, in Bangor, we watched as the Retro Rockers got everyone from babies to grandmothers out of their seats and dancing at The Brick Church on Union Street. Then, we strolled down Main Street to hear Evergreen at the Opera House. My previous experience was that a town’s most distinguished — which is to say, those with the most titles — were in the spotlight for New Year’s Eve. The rest of us were supposed to watch in admiration. But in Maine, I have learned that titles, and even a person’s occupation, are irrelevant. Connections and relationships are what matter.

The lead singer of the Retro Rockers is a fifth-grade teacher from my oldest son’s school. He was welcomed by the crowd with more enthusiasm and anticipation than perhaps even the governor or a senator might have been. He is revered not because of who he is — although that is certainly part of it — but because of what he does and how he has affected people’s lives. You are less likely to know his degrees and awards than you are to know that his students appreciate him so much they wrote a letter that eventually earned him a spot singing “God Bless America” at a Red Sox game.

Chris Prickitt of Evergreen, a bluegrass band, also is a teacher. From my second-row spot, I watched him expertly play the banjo, and the tapping of my foot was nearly uncontrollable. I realized that at the same moment, people in, say, New York City were wearing cocktail dresses and sipping martinis at flashy parties. I did not envy them. With mittens and hats piled at my feet and my bulky winter coat taking up my lap, I reached over to hold Dustin’s hand. There was nowhere else I cared to be.

The ball covered in Christmas lights that fell — er, was thrown — from the top of Paddy Murphy’s? Well, it was more memorable than any big-city ball drop I’ve ever seen. And all within a short walk from our home.

Of course, some of the exhilaration of New Year’s Eve might have been partially due to what I knew was coming the next morning. Dustin and I kicked off 2011 with a seriously good offer for military families: two discounted nights and free breakfast and dinner at the Harraseeket Inn, plus a $25 gift certificate to L.L. Bean (next week: what happens when you get lost in the L.L. Bean superstore). It’s all part of the Harraseeket’s “Caregiver” package in appreciation of nurses, EMTs, military, police and fire personnel and their families.

When we got to our hotel room, Dustin and I did what any parents of young children who are staying with their grandparents would do: We sat on the bed and did nothing.

Eventually, Dustin said, “Want to go to a 9:40 movie in Brunswick?”

I looked at the clock. It was 9:20 p.m. Brunswick is at least a 10-minute drive from Freeport. My heart quickened. Could we do this? It seemed so dangerous. I mean, usually I’m coming home at 9 p.m., not heading out. And how could I just leave so freely without planning something — a baby sitter, dinner for the kids?

After the movie, and as long as we were being wild and crazy, Dustin and I went out to dinner. We spent the next two days doing crazy things, like driving 90 miles to the Camden Snow Bowl on a whim and snowshoeing dangerously close to sunset; shopping at L.L. Bean in the wee hours of the morning (they really are open 24 hours!); seeing not one but two movies in the same weekend; staying up past bedtime and sleeping in past breakfast.

By Sunday night, the kids were calling our cell phones: “When are you coming home?” “I can’t find my backpack.” “Lindell took my penguin.” Telling them “goodbye” and hanging up was a lot like hitting the snooze button and snuggling in bed for another 30 minutes. We still had 12 hours of vacation left.

By Monday night, we were back home in Bangor. While the kids fought at our ankles and a pile of dirty laundry sat next to the basement stairs, Dustin hugged me and whispered, “Welcome back to reality.”

I sighed. Then I smiled. We will always have Freeport.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at