Monday, July 20, 2015

"This is not fun. We
should have stayed home. "

It was the first night of vacation. My husband and I were unpacking
groceries in the small kitchen of our Maine beach house rental, and we'd
agreed in tense whispers that the refrigerator door should remain open for the
duration of the effort. We couldn't risk closing it between the loading of
string cheese, Yo Baby yogurt and gallon jugs of milk lest the faint whisper
of suction wake our children, who were (we hoped) finally asleep upstairs.

Bedtime had been a brutal, drawn-out affair, with one toddler screaming for
two hours (tears, snot, hiccups, dry heaves) and the other wailing about the
lumpy bed, a witch's shadow on the wall, a piece of thread stuck between her
toes—and, of course, the unacceptable proximity of her screaming brother.

My husband sighed. "I think we need to manage our expectations for this
week. It'll probably be more of a relocation than a vacation. "

I gazed over his shoulder at the lanterns on our deck, at the twin Adirondack
rocking chairs where I'd imagined we'd sip cocktails every night.
Instead, we fell into bed, wincing at the squeaky box spring, exhausted and
annoyed with each other. It was only a matter of time until one of us would
be awake again, pacing the splintery floors with our insomniac baby. In the
morning, we'd be up before dawn.

For 10 years, this was our pattern every summer: anticipation for the
annual Maine vacation, followed by the slow dawn of reality once we arrived.
Wherever you go, there you are—and wherever Ethan and I went, we had three
little kids who didn't share our enthusiasm for reading on the beach or
playing Scrabble by candle light.

We planned for these trips with military precision, e-mailing the packing
list back and forth so we could each make additions and subtractions based on
the ages and interests of our offspring. There were the big ticket items that
claimed the most real estate in the back of our minivan—Pack and Play,
booster seat, red wagon, beach toys, beach chairs, boogie boards—and
countless smaller necessities to be parceled into a rainbow fleet of duffle
bags: regular diapers and beach diapers; wipes and to-go wipes; SPF in solid,
cream and spray form; picture books and board books; beach towels and beloved
blankets; and, of course, clothes. No matter how many times we reviewed the
subsection of our list enumerating bathing suits, jelly shoes and
floppy-brimmed hats, at least one member of our family had to borrow underwear
from a sibling for the first few days in Maine.

The relocation settled into a predictable rhythm once we made a pilgrimage to
L. L. Bean to buy everything we forgot (plus monogrammed lunchboxes and gifts
for our pets). Every morning we loaded up the red wagon, packed our cooler
and walked down a pebbly lane to the beach. One adult ran back to the house
to retrieve a forgotten sand sifter. Soon, another adult would carry the baby
back to the house for a nap; but inevitably, the baby would have other plans,
so that adult would have to roll a ball back and forth across the floor for an
hour instead of napping himself. When the beachside adult returned, laden
with clamshells, five towels forming a mega-cervical collar around her neck,
the two adults would have a stand off about who had earned the right to opt
out of shucking corn that night. At five o'clock, "Little Bear" came on
and everyone was happy for a measly 24 minutes.

I used to eyeball other families on the beach, certain that they were better
rested and less argumentative than my frazzled crew. I sulked under the brim
of my straw hat, convinced that I'd never have another peaceful vacation for
the rest of my life—that I would never again find myself alone on the beach
in the late-afternoon, or nap in a hammock, or enjoy a piece of fudge for
breakfast without having to explain my choice to a budding nutritionist in a
Crewcuts rash guard. I didn't expect to feel unencumbered—I wasn't
completely delusional and I did love having three eager helpers when I made
dribble castles—but I was tired of feeling like a pack mule. I needed a
vacation from vacationing. We all did.

And then, little by little, the packing list got shorter. The booster seat
migrated to the closet; and the Pack and Play to a rummage sale in the school
gym. One day last spring, I pulled the red wagon down the street to a
neighbor's house and left it there with a cupful of Maine sand still in the
compartment where we used to store Goldfish crackers and granola bars.

"You don't want to hang onto it for your grandchildren?" my neighbor
asked, absent-mindedly stroking her pregnant belly, a look of pity on her
face. New and future parents always assume you miss the stage they're in;
usually, I don't.

"No thanks, my wagon-pulling days are behind me," I said. For the
record, our kids are now 8, 11 and 14; I'm not expecting grandchildren
anytime soon.

I didn't bother to explain my favorite thing about having big kids, even
the teenager who rolls her eyes at my navy swim skirt as she shimmies into
bikinis not much bigger than the ones she wore to the beach in Maine when she
was 6. Vacations are actually relaxing again. These days, I only pack for
one person: myself. I have time to read a book, I no longer have boogie
boards bungeed to my back, and Ethan and I can enjoy a moonlit stroll whenever
we feel like it. We also sleep late; the toddler who once used the Pack and
Play as his sunrise pulpit is now 11 and sleeps until 10. When he finally
joins his sisters in the kitchen, the three of them make their own pancakes.

It's easy to romanticize the relocations when I look at an old picture of
our kids in front of a shed festooned with lobster buoys. They're sweet,
with their sandy toes and knotty hair and bellies full of Lobster Tracks ice
cream. I miss their awe and their energy. But I wouldn't go back to that
stage, not if you offered me a free month in the most luxurious waterfront
digs.

Because the calm I used to crave is nothing compared to the adventures and
companionship you can share with three well-rested, semi-grown,
self-perambulating humans. If only I'd known what I had to look forward to,
I might not have lost so much sleep back then. I wouldn't have joined in
the crying at bedtime. I would have put patience and perspective at the top
of the packing list. It was only a matter of time until our long journey
deposited us where we are now: the fun part.

Elisabeth Egan is the author of the novel A Window Opens. This article
originally appeared on RealSimple. com. More from Real Simple:
5 Ways to Survive a Family Vacation
4 Travel Myths, Busted
5 Keys to a Peaceful Family Vacation Did you enjoy
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Article The L. A. Cobblers Making Shoes for the Stars "This is not
fun. We should have stayed home. " It was the first night of vacation. My
husband and I were unpacking groceries in the small kitchen of our Maine beach
house rental, and we'd agreed in tense whispers that the refrigerator door
should remain open for the duration of the effort. We couldn't risk closing
it between the loading of string cheese, Yo Baby yogurt and gallon jugs of
milk lest the faint whisper of suction wake our children, who were (we hoped)
finally asleep upstairs.

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