To the vacation that wasn’t. (iStock)

What should I do? The call came from an acquaintance. Apparently this is what I’m most famous for: wrecking my family’s perfect vacation. And, the rumor continues, I can tell you exactly what to do if you wreck yours.

I know. Perfect vacations are a myth we create by curating our photo albums; goofy grins go in, slumps of boredom get edited out. With teenagers around, it gets more challenging. What ancient ruin can compete with a night doing nothing with a friend? This comes exactly when the family getaway goes on the clock. In our case, with one daughter halfway through college and the other soon on her way, the countdown — to summer internships, jobs with few personal days, mates with their own holiday plans — had already begun.

My solution? Plan a family vacation as if it were the last, the one that would create memories we could reflect upon forever. The result? A Christmas Eve departure, an overnight in the capitol city of San Jose, and a puddle-jumper to a rainforest hotel for a week in Costa Rica.

For once, everyone was looking forward to the trip. The college girl, who’d spent her previous summer in Ecuador, couldn’t wait to be the designated translator. The high school girl had just discovered her best friend went on an almost identical trip last year and it was awesome! The husband was so excited to get away he forgot to beg me not to over-pack. They nearly swooned when I sprang the surprise that I’d planned a day trip to a beach where a couple of American landlubbers could get surfing lessons from actual Costa Rican teenagers.

If only I had thought to check my passport.

Day of departure, suitcases lined up in the hall, my husband broke the news. “Your passport’s expired.” He still can’t explain why he checked. Although his finger pointed to the evidence, expiration date eight months ago, I wasn’t bothered. “I grabbed the wrong one,” I said. “Obviously.” I wasn’t the kind of person who’d forget to renew her passport. I was the kind of person who filled out the hotel form indicating in-room snack food preference.

I returned with the bad news everyone else seemed to already know. The expired passport was my most current one. “Go,” I told them. “The three of you should go. I’ll get a new passport and join you.”

“We’re not going,” my husband said.

“Not without you,” the girls chimed in.

I could tell by their tone the leave-mom-at-home option had already been discussed and discarded. They wouldn’t budge. It was like settled law.

My thinking turned magical. It was a Christmas Eve flight. Would a Newark airport security agent even notice my passport expired? Dubious, my husband called a colleague who used to work in travel. She contacted the Costa Rican consulate. Then she set us straight. If I managed to get past Newark security and fly to Costa Rica, the customs agent there would send me home on the next flight.

There is a Need it in a Hurry? section on the U.S. Passport website but the sub-category Need It Now? is reserved for Life Or Death Emergencies. So I called the general hotline instead, the one For All Other Situations. The line was busy. I wasn’t alone.

A Google search for Expedited Passports yielded scores of outfits offering speedy renewal services. But the cost was outrageous and besides, were they for real or were they identity thieves? I decided against finding out.

When the hotline call finally went through, a kind man listened quietly to my story and then told me the bleak facts. Passport offices were closed for Christmas Eve. They’d be closed for Christmas Day and for the weekend. After that, emergencies were by appointment only.

“I know,” the man said, in a voice you’d use to comfort a bereft child. “Ten years goes by much faster than you think.” Suddenly I realized why I’d always liked my passport photo; it was a 10-year-old photo of a much younger me.

After the man gave me an appointment for four days hence in Philadelphia, my husband gave me the final bad news. It didn’t matter when my appointment was. All Christmas week flights to Costa Rica were fully booked.

It was 3:00 when, like a patient who’d bled out in the emergency room, our jungle holiday was declared dead. Because of my out-of-character inattention, the family vacation of a 17-year-old girl, a 20-year-old college student, a husband who worked too hard and a writer previously known as a careful planner, was ruined. I saw it in their faces, the surprise that it was good old mom who ruined it.

And then, the bigger surprise: My older daughter gently asked if she could make me a cup of tea, maybe peppermint or chamomile? My younger daughter sweetly suggested we watch episodes of “The Office” together, on demand. My husband chimed in with the idea of checking out Christmas movie offerings. The only thing they were upset about was that I felt I’d failed them.

Mothers often find themselves held responsible when random things go wrong. Say, the weatherman promised a blizzard but it turns out not to be a snow day. That’s on us. At first we’re surprised to find we have this useless superpower to make things go wrong. But eventually most of us accept it. Yet now, when it was undeniably 100 percent my fault, instead of the silent treatment I got kindness, tea, hugs and love. Also Chinese takeout, which my husband picked up and which we ate in the living room, sitting on the floor around the coffee table, something we’d never done before.

So when the call came — I let my passport expire. What do I do? — I said, nothing. Just hope. Hope you’ve loved your family hard, even when they’ve made mistakes. Then maybe, if you’re really lucky, the day you wreck their perfect vacation, they’ll love you hard right back.

Nancy Star is a former movie executive turned author whose novel Sisters One, Two, Three will be published Jan 1 by Lake Union. In addition to the Washington Post her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Family Circle. Visit her at www.nancystarauthor.com and follow her on Twitter @NancyStarAuthor.

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