Several Saturdays ago, I was fed up with family life. My house was filled with visiting relatives who all needed rides to the airport. In the middle of a very hot night, BGE turned off the electricity to the entire block. So at 5 o'clock in the morning, I awoke in a sweat and stumbled to the kitchen, lighting candles, getting ready to drive my brother-in-law to his early morning flight.
The only thing that kept me going through this and subsequent weekend travails - four more runs to BWI and a five-hour swim meet in Crofton - was the thought that very soon, I would be on vacation. Moreover, part of the holiday was going to be child-free. One kid, the college boy, would be working in Vermont, and the other kid, the high schooler, would be frolicking in South Carolina with a friend's family. For several days, my wife and I would be alone at the family's beach cottage, unrestrained by the demands of domestic life.
The first few days of our kid-free vacation were wonderful. We read novels. We cooked elaborate meals. We rode bikes. We floated in the cool, salty ocean waters.
However, after a few days of being unfettered, we got antsy. We threw ourselves into household projects, we stripped and refinished an old dining room table, we washed and waxed the kitchen floor and we waterproofed wood porches. When we found ourselves bounding out of bed in the morning to admire the shine on the kitchen floor, the glow of the dining room table, and the grain of the porch wood, we knew it was time to hook up with the kids, to re-enter the parental world.
We reclaimed the high schooler, packed up the car and headed to Vermont to visit our older son, who was working at the Bread Loaf conference center near Middlebury College in the Green Mountains. Along the way, we visited colleges. As parents of a high school senior, we are drawn to college campus tours. I won't say that as we drove through New England we turned off at every interstate exit sign that had the word "college" in it. But we did slow down.
Almost every college we visited it seems, had "1 million books" in the library, "really good food" in the dorms and a "caring faculty." It also had bank-breaking tuition, but nobody talks much about that.
There also was not much talk coming out of the back seat of the car during our trip. When the kids were younger, they would bounce around the back seat and ask a thousand questions. During this trip, the high schooler slept in the back seat and spoke only when the batteries in his CD player failed, or when he was hungry, which was about every three hours.
From time to time, my wife and I engaged in what I call our "dialogue" about whether we were lost. Without going into particulars of, for example, what is the best way to negotiate the roadways of Glens Falls, N.Y., I would simply say that we have differing opinions on whether a wrong turn is the end of the world (my view), or not a big a deal (her view). We have engaged in this "dialogue" on every road trip we have taken during the 30 years of our marriage.
In Vermont, I was reminded that seemingly small tiffs between family members could sometimes escalate into serious trouble. I read a wire story in the Burlington Free Press about a couple in Milo, Maine. The couple, married over 20 years, had a dispute over a freshly baked blueberry pie. The wife wanted to give the pie to a relative. The husband objected. A glass of wine was tossed in someone's face. A pistol appeared. Police arrived at the home to find the couple dead in the kitchen and the pie sitting on the countertop.
After reading that story, I vowed to chill out the next time we got lost on family car trip. Moreover, a few days later when we were leaving Vermont, I did not go ballistic when one of my sacred trunk-packing rules was violated.
I had just finished artfully arranging our 26,000 pieces of luggage in the one configuration that permitted the trunk to close and the vehicle to roll down road without a "Caution: Wide Load" sign. Then the high schooler announced that he had to retrieve one of his summer's reading books from his buried bag. For years, I have preached to family members that you must think before you pack, you must separate items you will need en route from those stowed in the trunk. A parallel precept is that once a bag hits the trunk, it remains there unopened, like ballast in a ship's hold, until journey's end.
I wanted to throttle the kid. But there were witnesses standing nearby, among them the kid's high school English teacher, Ed Brown, who also works at Bread Loaf, and for all I know, might have assigned this summer reading.
So I simply fumed and let the kid dig into my perfectly packed trunk. It was frustrating, but as I was repeatedly reminded in the past two weeks, that rub, in part, is what makes it a family vacation.