Part II: The Family Trip


I don't know about you, but I grew up repeatedly watching Clark W. Griswold and his family making the too-eventful trek from Chicago to WallyWorld in the family truckster. We gleefully grimaced as one thing after another went horribly wrong as the Griswold family made their way across the country in what was supposed to be a time of fun and togetherness. The movie, of course, is "National Lampoon's Vacation."

Every parent will tell you that there is a major difference between a vacation and a family trip. If your children are present and need you to do things for them (like, say, feed them or change their diapers or tell them to get off of a screen), you are not on vacation. You, my friend, are on a family trip.

As many of you know, I went on a vacation last year. An honest-to-goodness vacation. You can read about it here. We needed that vacation. We needed that time away from the kids with each other. (If anyone needed a break, it was I, the poor woman who had been literally digging through poop for weeks looking for a missing LED light swallowed by a toddler (which I never did find, by the way).)

Anyway, when we got back from our actual vacation, we immediately launched into the second part of our time away from home: a family trip. In this case, we piled into our minivan and embarked on an odyssey in our Odyssey. Now, while my husband and I had been sipping vino in Tuscany, our kids had been with my parents in Dallas. They had a magical time with their grandparents on their grandparents' home turf and, if this is an option for you, I highly recommend it. It's good for the kids; it's good for the grandparents; it's good for the parents. Everyone wins! But after a week, my parents needed recharging and some non-group time. So, off we went!

We were headed on a four-day road trip around Texas. Starting in Dallas. our first stop was to our friends' lake house in East Texas for a night, followed by a stop at a friend's house who lives in a neighborhood with zebras (I know, right?!), and then on to Austin to visit my brother and sister-in-law, before heading back to Dallas, then home to Chicago. For those of you who haven't been to the Lone Star State, Texas is bigger than France. That is a LOT of time in a minivan. (Ours is named Prometheus.)

Fun fact about our family: I am the primary driver and I do almost all of the driving on road trips. When we were on our way to Dallas, I am the one who drove the entire 13 hours overnight. My husband works from the passenger seat with his laptop open and I listen to a crazy collection of music from "Copacabana" to Broadway musicals to Aretha Franklin, Madonna, and Beyoncé. I have my own little quiet dance party in the driver's seat when the kids are asleep on the road.

When they're awake, they play games, flip through activity books, read, or watch movies on the fold-down DVD player in Prometheus's ceiling. I know I'm exceptionally lucky to not have kids who get carsick and we have pretty well-established rules to minimize squabbling while strapped in, but it's a far cry from perfect.

While being in the car may not be the most fun part of our trip, there is something magical that starts to happen when you're alone with your family and the only purpose of your trip is to spend time together and make memories. During the rest of the year, I feel so pulled in so many directions. Am I keeping up on email? Am I meeting work deadlines? Is dinner going? Is the laundry piling up? You know how it goes.

When you have nothing to do except to spend time together, the walls start to come down. At least mine do. I'm funnier. Without the ability to be pulled in so many directions, I have a reduced number of things to worry about. If I don't have the physical ability to work at cleaning off my kitchen countertops, I can't worry about them at midnight. I feel the little divot wrinkle between my eyes start to fade (although that may be wishful thinking). My kids get to see me outside of total focused mom mode. Suddenly, we're on an adventure together. I'm still the mom, but at least I'm the silly or fun or sweet mom instead of the mom with crazy eyes.

As I was hanging off the back of a tube behind a speedboat with my oldest daughter (seven at the time and her first time to feel the thrill of flying over the waves), she exclaimed, "I've never had this much fun with my mom!!!" I felt both elated and horribly sad. There's a reason why people recommend giving experiences instead of material objects as gifts. This was the exact moment when I realized the importance of making those memories together.

Other than to visit family, we had only taken one other family trip when our oldest (now ten) was six. It's not something we were able to do. For one thing, it's a luxury to be able to go on a trip with kids. (Do you have any idea how much it costs to fly four kids and two adults across the country? We don't because that's definitely not in our budget.) Between the expense and the struggle to take time away from the office, we've been "grounded" for a while. Oh, we've explored all over our own city in summertime adventures, but getting a total change of scenery over several days is a different thing. We blinked and nearly four years had gone by since we spent time just as a family having fun. As we sat in the moonlight, watching our kids try to catch fireflies, my husband and I decided that we would take a family trip every year. It was now a priority.

Fast forward a year, this year had us back on an odyssey in the Odyssey, driving through a total of eleven states on our travels. We revisited the lake in Texas, thanks to our very generous friends there, and then went on a different path, cutting down to New Orleans (stopping at Café du Monde for beignets, of course!) and across the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and Alabama before meeting my whole family on the beach in Florida. Along the way, we stopped and saw friends and family — cousins my kids have never met — and our children saw the ocean for the first time.

While on this trip, I got word that a former professor whom I greatly admire had lost her 17-year-old daughter to cancer. Nothing will reframe your own life like that information. I found myself choking back tears more than a few times as I watched my kids building sandcastles together and laughing in the waves. I hugged them all a little too tightly before bed. I wondered what they would remember of their childhood. Likewise, which memories will I carry with me when they're all out of the house and there's no one to tuck in anymore? Family trips are important.

On the way home, the electrical system blew a fuse (complete with burning smell and smoke from the dashboard) and we had to complete fourteen of the fifteen hours of the drive home without electronics (e.g., clock, radio, bluetooth, GPS, DVD player, etc.). (We did, however, have air conditioning — Praise the Lord!!!) Of course, my husband and I delighted in telling the kids, "This is how it was when we were growing up!" They were not amused. Tensions started to run high. It's strange to not have ANY noise except for the wheels on the road and the sound of an electrical pulse hitting the speakers every five and a half seconds. (Full disclosure: I finally used my phone's iTunes as a radio when the natives grew too restless and the pulse started to make me equally nuts.)

To make matters worse, our youngest daughter fractured her foot as a result of a bizarre tumble on the stairs at a friend's house in Nashville on the way home. (Thankfully, that friend happens to be a nurse practitioner who was able to hook her up with an expertly wrapped foot, appropriate pain meds, and an enormous stuffed puppy dog (now named Mr. Pickles), all which made her feel much better.)

Nevertheless, things had made a sharp downward turn and it was starting to look like the Griswold Family Vacation 2.0. As we rode the rest of the way home, we played alphabet and license plate games, filled out Mad Libs, and listened as the kids made up their own stories, usually involving Mr. Pickles meeting some kind of grisly end. This had all the hallmarks of a true family trip, including "Are we there yet?" and "How much longer?" We pulled into home late that night; my kids were all asleep. One by one, they opened their eyes and groggily said, "It's good to be home."

As I sorted through piles of weird coming out of Prometheus the next day, I thought about Clark W. Griswold. I think that the thing that is so relatable about him to me is his optimism. He so wants his family to have a picture-perfect vacation. He wants the million likes on social media (if that had been a thing back then). He wants to be the hero dad who's made this magic happen for his family. I totally get that. I come from an entire family of optimists and fun-makers. I grew up hearing that you have to find the fun in any situation. That's often easier said than done. But at the end of the day, Clark W. Griswold gave his family some memories. They might not have been the memories he thought they were going to have, but they're memories just the same. So, until the next family trip, I'm going to be replaying a few in my mind. May you all go into this school year with your own version of cartwheels on the beach!

Photo credit: Leslie Brown Photography

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Allison Harvey