I am sorry excited to report that next week is Spring Break here in our part of Illinois, and unfortunately happily for us that means Family Vacation! This year’s debate on where to go was particularly fraught with disagreement lively, partly because support for a real “family vacation” was what my siblings and I received from my parents for Christmas this year.
In a letter recognizing how busy each of our families are, my parents gave each of us a gift that would contribute to a vacation just for our own immediate families, which was incredibly thoughtful. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my father is a lawyer, so there was one stipulation—we needed to provide some photographic evidence of having actually gone somewhere (though if we chose to go away without our kids, he preferred that the photographs be taken during daylight hours only).
When I first read this letter, standing in the kitchen during the holiday craziness, all I saw was the word “vacation,” and my immediate thought was, “I could go to Paris!” I had a lovely fantasy of myself wearing a striped boatneck top, flinging open a window overlooking the Champs-Elysees. Then I heard a crunching noise in the background—someone driving a toy truck over the crumb-covered tiles on the kitchen floor—and I realized, “Oh, right. The trip would include THEM.”
So instead of Martin taking the boys camping and me staying home all by myself, which has been our past idyllic Spring Break arrangement, we are traveling to Niagara Falls. And yes, we know it’s going to be cold (one of the parents at daycare actually asked Martin if the falls would be “frozen over”), we know it’s touristy, and that the American side is very seedy.
But Jacob really wants to go and we want to support his idea. The alternative was “camping our way” to the Grand Canyon, which is about 14,000 miles from here, and no matter how many conversations I had with my sister trying to convince myself that camping in March under any circumstances, let alone with all three boys along some sketchily planned out route, where the main breaks would be getting back into the car would be “a fun adventure,” I just knew that either our lives or our marriage, and very possibly both, would be at stake should that scenario come to pass.
So it’s Niagara Falls, which has the potential to be quite a lot of fun: we’re driving in two days, breaking up our trip around Lake Huron, which will be lovely; it will be completely great to see the Falls, especially at night, and also from that boat where you can go behind them; there will be no camping involved; and the whole thing will be over in seven days and we can come home, having successfully completed our mission of a “family vacation.”
I was about to write that “it’s not as though I don’t enjoy traveling with my family,” but as my fingers were moving, I realized that is exactly what it’s like. I don’t. I love them, I have fun with them (we have a particularly enjoyable family dance ritual going right now to the song “Down”), and I value them as human beings. But I don’t like to travel with them. I’m afraid that sentence is going to have to stand as is. And the truth is that this has always been the case for me, even on family vacations growing up.
There was the disastrous 1980 beach camping vacation in Duck, NC, for example, when it was 135 degrees and my parents got to sleep in an air conditioned pop-top camper while my siblings and I slept in a tent with 3 inches of sand and flypaper. And we all got to sit on the beach staring at the ocean which was off-limits because of a shark warning. You had to walk about a quarter of a mile to go to the bathroom, and the evening campground activity involved clogging, which I had never heard of before and never need to see again.
But the problem has never really been the destinations; the problem is me. I’m not proud of it. On that NC beach vacation, I spent a good deal of time in the pop-top blowing drying my hair. In August. At the beach. The reality is that it takes me a while to adjust to new places, I can be sort of a princess about comfort, and in general, if given the choice between being with other people and being alone, more often than not, I prefer to be alone.
So as Chris Rock would say, “Yeah, I SAID it.” It doesn’t make me look good, and part of me would like to be a different kind of mother, but it is what it is. And we’re going on a road trip to Niagara Falls next week AND I plan to enjoy it. One piece of good news is that unlike with tiny kids, when you have to pack mountains of cumbersome paraphernalia, with boys over the age of 6, they don’t pack anything except an electronic device. Toothbrush? Blank stare. Underwear? Totally optional. Weather-appropriate clothes? Not even on the radar. So getting ready shouldn’t be too stressful. I myself will be packing my three must-haves for any family trip: my special pillow, some calming pharmaceuticals, and a copy of Po Bronson’s “Why Do I Love These People?” Understanding, Surviving, and Creating Your Own Family.
And, I will have my laptop! I don’t plan to let a little thing like an 800-mile family road trip interfere with completing my Radical Lent project. So for anyone who might be interested, I’ll be here (or there, as the case may be), keeping you posted on how things are going from the road, sharing some poems (and very possibly requesting moral support or a manufactured emergency that will require me to return home–alone).
Today’s poem is “Lamentations” by Rita Dove, and despite the title, it’s more of a response to lamenting, not lamenting itself. It’s a poem that kicks you in the butt for closing yourself off to life (or for greeting whatever life offers you, like a trip to Niagara Falls with your family, with a negative attitude).
Throw open the shutters
to your darkened residences:
can you hear the pipes playing,
their hunger shaking the olive branches?
To hear them sighing and not answer
is to deny this world, descend rung
by rung into no loss and no desire.
Listen: empty yet full, silken
air and brute tongue,
they are saying:
To refuse to be born is one thing—
but once you are here,
you’d do well to stop crying
and suck the good milk in.
Rita Dove, Mother Love, 1995