It is time for the family vacation -- two weeks of togetherness to strengthen the ties that bind. All over America, parents are planning meaningful and memorable experiences to share with their children.
These uplifting experiences will be forgotten before we get the fleas out of the sleeping bags. And it is the fleas the children will remember. Vacation mishaps have become our children's vacation memories.
Our children will tell their children about the year Dad refused to tie down the portable crib and it flew off the roof rack as soon as we hit our first highway. For the next half hour, Dad dodged oncoming cars like a manic matador. Finally, he retrieved most of the portable crib and secured it to the car rack with sneaker laces--we left the rope at home.
Sometimes the highlight of the trip is the trip itself. Our kids like to tell stories about the shortcuts their parents took--only to discover that these were roads less traveled for good reason. There was the pastoral dirt road that ended in a drainage ditch and the promising two-lane highway that took us to every railroad crossing in the state just as the trains were coming down the track.
Then there were the vacation houses we rented sight unseen, which turned out to have features never mentioned in newspaper ads or by real estate agents. One summer we spent seven days under siege by every insect on the eastern seaboard. When we weren't swatting or scratching, we were yelling at the children to close the screen door of our beachfront house. Only when we left, covered in calamine lotion like a tribe of weary Indians, did we notice the gaping hole in the roof that welcomed the flying invaders.
Another year we arrived late at the "two-bedroom villa" we were sharing with another family. They were already ensconced in the master suite. We quickly discovered that the other bedroom was actually the attic. It had no air conditioning, but it did have four cots lined up camp style and a naked light bulb overhead. Our toddlers were afraid to sleep in darkness, so we bedded down all in a row--with a blinding light burning all night. We refer to that vacation as our summer in Stalag 17.
Our children also compare notes on the times their parents served as guides to the great outdoors. They recall the waterfalls that turned out to be trickles after we trekked miles to see them, the sunsets that were upstaged by sandflies, the trees we called by the wrong names and the forest we lost altogether.
Why do our worst moments become the memories our children cherish? Maybe it is because those are the times our kids catch us with our vulnerability showing. We try hard to show our children that we are confident and in control. But vacations often bring us face to face with environments and events we cannot control.
What's more, it's hard to keep these problems a secret. At home we whisper about problems after the children are in bed. On vacation, the problems and the kids are too close for that. We all share the sand in the cereal.
Perhaps it is simply that the perversity of kids thrives on the adversity of parents. I would do anything to get my children to forget last summer when they found a snake under the house. I refused to step outdoors for two days. When I finally summoned courage to venture out for a swim, I lost my bathing suit top in the surf.
I have offered both love and money to get that vacation written out of the memory books. So far, no luck.