Among the things I most look forward to every summer are my family vacations.
Even before my niece Josie was born, my mom, my brother Joachim and I have always spent a few days every summer, secluded, in an easy togetherness, from the rest of the world. Once Josie came along, those vacations, which now include her mom, became even more precious. We are a close family to begin with, eating dinner together on Sundays, piling into the car for day trips to our favorite local haunts, and marking life’s every milestone with ritual and celebration. And when one of us is hurting, the rest swoop in, sometimes bumbling in our guidance and care, but always plying a fierce, protective love.
Our family vacations, to me, are a playful oasis in the sweep of our busy lives reinforcing the value of those ties. Part of the fun, whether it’s been Disney World or Myrtle Beach, the Shenandoah Valley or Cape May, has been watching Josie interact with a new environment. Her wonder and excitement are infectious and her antics keep us in stitches, fueling many of the memories recalled from our sojourns.
She is now 11 but was only 2 when we spent a Christmas at Disney World. I can still remember my brother’s anxiety shepherding her through the chaotic throngs and how every moment of worry dissolved once he saw her awed features and heard her exclamations watching the fireworks explode over Cinderella’s Castle.
Today, she blushes when we recount how she shied away — sometimes in a fit of panic — from every character she encountered, preferring the images in her storybooks and DVDs to their live presence, until she stood in line to greet Mickey Mouse.
Once at the front, she swung her arms wide and ran toward him with an overjoyed “Mickey, Mickey, I love you,” letting him draw her into a hug.
In South Carolina, she was the queen of the kiddie pool. “Want to go ‘wimming?” was the first question on her lips every morning when she awoke. She loved traipsing the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., peering at the hermit crabs in every sundries shop and pestering us all for quarters to play the arcade games or pennies to press into a souvenir.
Once, catching us all by surprise, she leaped onto a platform to announce to all passers-by an embarrassing incident involving my brother. After our initial shock, we collapsed with laughter, erupting into gales for days every time we thought about her impish proclamation.
But she isn’t the star of every fond memory. At Sea World, I remember Joachim and I pressing our faces to the glass of Shamu’s tank after his show, holding our breath as the killer whale’s formidable profile came into view, its body gliding past us with a slick and dazzling grace. We were like kids, retreating from the glass each time the whale disappeared only to hurry back for another look as he rounded the tank once more.
Sometimes, our best moments revolve around food, like the time we discovered the Fractured Prune in Ocean City, Md., and rhapsodized endlessly about its hot, hand-dipped doughnuts as if we’d stumbled upon confectionery nirvana.
Recently, as we vacationed in the Poconos, we all shared in my brother’s joy as he stepped onto the Appalachian Trail. It’s been a dream of his for years to hike some part of it and when we learned a stretch runs through Delaware Water Gap, the entire family followed him onto that hallowed ground, though his wife Betsy and Josie would have preferred a cooler, less-buggy alternative to the end of our day.
But that is part of the beauty of our vacations. They don’t always go perfectly. Disagreements arise, different interests compete for attention, and in recent years, my niece has begun the clamor of “I’m bored” if she is not transported into a world instantly ready to entertain her.
But we practice compromise. We make sure we each get to do one thing we’d really enjoy. We follow days of nonstop activity with low-key nights, or build up to busy evenings with quieter, less-demanding days. We drift into our own space if we need it. And always, we laugh and laugh.
As I returned home last Saturday following those halcyon few days, I was pierced, not for the first time, with the realization of how lucky I am to have the family I do. I thought of the tales I hear of siblings divided, rifts between parents and child, grudges that drag on for years. Even in my family, there have been times when one of us has walked a fractured line that could have become a chasm.
But somehow, all we’ve been through, individually and collectively, has brought us to a deeper gratitude and appreciation for each other.
It makes me think of the old adage “The family that prays together stays together,” as I recall the many nights my mom knelt beside my brother and me when we were kids, making sure we said our prayers at bedtime.
Yet I also believe there’s truth in a simple amendment — the family that plays together endures in devotion and resilience, too.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times