The air inside the van we borrowed from my father-in-law sticks to my arms and legs in spite of the ice-cold air streaming from the dash vents. Darkness leaves little to look at as we zoom along Interstate 94 toward New York City at five in the morning on the first day of family vacation. Having been awake and packing until well past two, I ache in every remote muscle, and my eyes sting and throb with the pain of having been rousted before I'd really even slept. Sophie and Max play with Simon and some other old-fashioned hand-held games purchased for this trip, and Lillie works on her "computer" (a miniature Magnadoodle).
Beginning with our very first road trip, John and I began to learn how important family vacations are. Fun isn't the whole point, and God knows vacationing with small children is not quite relaxing. It's the intensity of being shoulder to shoulder with the people you love best in the world for fourteen straight days with no "routine" interruptions that makes vacation such a necessary and cataclysmic break in the year. No phone to answer, no bills to pay, no email to check, no jobs to do. Just a van full of people in love.
Not that it's all bliss. To tell the truth, John and I fought most of the way to New York that first trip to visit my sister five years ago. We fought before we left because he paid $1,200 cash to repair our "sad" second car the day before we departed, a debit which, in those days of painfully tight belts, left our checking account ill-equipped to fund our trip. We figured out a way to get cash out of our credit card somewhere along the way, but just when all was forgiven and forgotten, the "good" first car we were driving started to billow steam in Madison. The repair took the better part of the afternoon, and provoked a fresh batch of bickering. We pulled into Southbend, Indiana after eleven o'clock that night. Still, Sophie kept up the spirit by bounding into the room at the Holiday Inn singing, "Oh, Mama, it's a palace!" We took her and her baby brother swimming in a chilly pool despite the hour, and woke up the next morning refreshed.
We didn't freak out again until much later that night, when Pennsylvania just stretched on and on, and the town we had marked as our overnight stop--Williamsport--literally kept shifting its location. One sign would read, "Williamsport, 27 miles." Five miles down the road, another sign would announce, "Williamsport, 33 miles." It was late, late, late, and John was crabby, crabby, crabby. When we finally found the mysterious Williamsport--which ended up being a good many miles off the highway--the hotel where we'd planned to stay overnight was full. John huffed back to our tired red Escort in a fit. I did my best to keep the babies calm while I yelled at John to calm down himself and find us another hotel.
We did find another place to stay, where the kids proceeded to bounce off the walls until nearly dawn. But on that morning of day three, luck looked us in our bloodshot eyes and decided to take up our cause. New Jersey was a breeze of a drive, and many hours earlier than we'd expected, we found ourselves at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan. Sophie howled and squirmed with anticipation, and even one-year-old Max kicked his chubby legs in glee.
The rest of the trip only got better, despite the insanity of navigating Manhattan with toddlers. Exhausting though it was, that trip inundated our senses around the clock: Sophie still recalls the fish markets of Chinatown, the music outside Lincoln Center, the humid wind on the Staten Island Ferry, and the honking and din in the street below my sister's apartment in a Lower East Side tenement building. Like the jerky, dim New York subway, our trip jolted us out of the close, damp routine of our daily lives as young parents and helped us see each other in the blinding light of the world at large. By the time we hit Michigan on the return trip, we knew how to be spontaneous and daring when we saw a stretch of white sand beach and calm blue water shining iridescent in the sun. We knew how to pull over and swim to our hearts' content, trusting we'd get home eventually.
When we rounded the bend of Highway 8 into our hometown of Center City, we marveled at how pretty it was--ours and our neighbors' homes perched high on the Summit Avenue bluff like Victorian doll houses over a glass lake. We knew then, having driven halfway across the country and back, that there was no place we'd rather be then there in Center City, at home with each other.
Quite the opposite was our homecoming a few years later, when we diverged from our usual driving vacations and took a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean, family style. We sailed in March, during the late winter of my first year of editing and John's first year of full-time school administration. It was the first anniversary of having begun the founding of a charter school, and our second year of parenting three children. When the seven days were over and our plane touched down to a gray, sleety late afternoon in Minnesota, we felt here was almost anywhere else in the world we'd rather be. And the weather was only a metaphor for the weightiness we felt at returning to our daily lives. Something, our trip had whispered to us, had to change. Overnight, we recognized how profoundly our lives would be eased if we lived in the Cities, near John's work, my work, and the bulk of our activities. Simply giving up John's commute would give us an additional fifteen hours of family time each week. Within two months, we were living in St. Paul, the end result of a successful attempt to draw out the relaxed, happy feelings of our vacation.
This year, as the miles rolled by outside the van, we visited the unlit places of our interior landscapes, unraveling mysteries less outwardly monumental than where to live, but powerful, all the same. Once again, we drove to New York to see my sister and her husband, who joined us as we continued through New England to Quebec, the homeland of my great grandparents. Watching my children doted upon by their adoring aunt and uncle always feels like finding out in the middle of a conversation that I've been mispronouncing a word repeatedly. Somehow, beloved others always bring forth facets of my children's personalities that I've either failed to see or taken for granted. I realize at these times that I don't know everything, even about my own family--and myself.
The daily grind--housework, phone calls, projects, work--can blind me to my children, and instead of Sophie, Max, and Lillie, I see the ride to be given, the shoe to be tied, the hands to be washed. But during vacation, I spent many hours sitting beside each child, visiting, playing, resting, reading, thinking. With all of you as my witnesses, I will not, I vow, allow the various responsibilities of my life to dull the pleasure inherent in my children's company. These are the best of times.
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