Sunday, August 7, 2011

Unpacking

From the time that I was in fifth grade until I started college, my family would pack into the station wagon each summer for our annual vacation week.  Over the years we took a lot of trips to Washington, D.C., spent a cloudy week in Montreal, tried Williamsburg, Virginia, and racked up some free nights in my grandmother's Florida condo.

I remember the monuments and museums, sure, but the comedy of the family travel drama tends to overshadow the travelogue.When my younger brother and I reminisce about these trips we talk about the time that my mother burst into tears upon first sight of our dingy Holiday Inn room and made us spend the rest of the night driving around searching fruitlessly for a new room, or the time she forced us on a sweaty march through site of the Battle of Bull Run and the ensuing interfamilial blowout rivaled the war between the states for hurt feelings and residual tension.

This talk always shocks my mother.  Though she did her fair share of fuming in traffic, weeping over accommodations and threatening to shut the whole trip down, her memories center around family togetherness and the sense of shared adventure. Until I became a mother I thought she was pretending not to remember the messier moments, but now I know that just as nature protects the species by dulling women's memories of the pain of childbirth, it protects the great tradition of the family vacation by filtering mothers' memories of the trips through a soft focus lens.

Though on our recent family vacation, I threatened more than once to call the whole thing off, by the time we hit the Delaware Memorial Bridge on our return trip, the frustrations, resentments and various sore spots I'd developed through the trip began to slip away. Though I'd tearfully apologized to my husband more than once during the trip for inflicting this expensive week and a half of punishment on us all, I turned to him as I drove across the bridge and sighed, satisfied, "Well, that was a nice trip."

I was telling the truth, because as I sped us up I-95, the hour that we spent driving around D.C. trying without a map to locate the zoo morphed from infuriating to humorous.  I remembered pointing out the Capitol to the girls each of the 15 times we looped past it, but not so much the tears of frustration that sprung forth somewhere after the tenth sighting. I smiled at the memory of my husband offering to run into a medical center in a questionable neighborhood for directions despite the fact that it housed only a detox center, an STD clinic and a psychiatric emergency room, and glazed over the part where I told him that if he dared to leave his wife and daughters in that parking lot I would be forced to lock him out of the car.

I thought back on the evening I spent getting reacquainted with a close high school friend I hadn't seen since college.  We sat with our husbands and watched our children play together in her very grown up home in Florida, far from our high school days in Central Massachusetts, and yet she was as fun and comfortable a presence as she'd been half a lifetime ago. On that drive back north I let slip away the hours leading up to our visit in which I'd been seized by high school-era anxiety about my clothes, my weight, my hair and the ridiculous spoiler on the back of our rental car.  And I tried to let go the haunting feeling I'd had woken with the morning after the visit that if high school me had been sitting next to me on that couch she'd have been less than impressed and not at all understanding about the rental car.

I remembered our visit to the Nickelodeon Hotel, the grand finale of the vacation, for the thrill the girls got from sleeping in their Spongebob-themed room and not for their teary souvenir demands.  The woman who crowded onto a small bench with us in the lobby during check-in and immediately began muttering angrily to herself and scratching as if infested became another travel anecdote punchline and not cause to search the suite so aggressively for bedbugs that Little E refused to sleep under her covers and would only allow us to drape her with a towel.

It is likely that someday my daughters will sit all grown up at my table finishing off Thanksgiving desserts and laughing about the time I used being desperately lost in D.C. to point out to their father why we really should have smart phones.  They may mock my shouting about how lucky they should consider themselves to have the kind of parents who would take them on vacation and shake their heads at the ridiculousness of dragging two young girls around a sweltering southern college campus so we could show them where we ate, where we went to class, where we lived, where we studied, where we bought books, where we went to parties, where we got our mail, and on and on.

If this happens I will probably remind them of bobbing in warm gulf waters, spotting dolphins, riding waterslides, seeing elephants feed and sitting in the gazebo on the campus pond watching the ducks land, but I hope that I'll also appreciate the humor in their memories. And I hope that they'll someday plan their own family vacations, so as to to prove to me that they weren't too traumatized by ours.

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