Neither my husband nor I come from families with big histories of family vacations. The only vacations my family ever took were when every few years or so my mother and her sister would load two families worth of kids (three from ours, five from theirs) into one vehicle and head off driving from Massachusetts to Indiana to visit relatives. I'm not kidding- eight kids and two women (the fathers never seemed to make these trips) in a station wagon or a van. This was way back before seat belts, obviously, or before seat belts became widely used. I can remember each time our family got a new (or new to us) car, the first thing we'd do was stuff the seat belts back behind the seats so they wouldn't be in the way. This was also before modern minivans. When I say we sometimes made the trip in a van, I mean a Dodge van with two seats up front and nothing but empty space in the back. Just an empty metal shell.
One year, when the eight of us cousins were mostly teenagers, each of our families had a foreign exchange student for the school year. We had a girl from Sweden staying with us, and our cousins had a Norwegian girl. (The Norwegian girl pretty much became a permanent member of the family and actually reads this blog!) The mothers decided we needed to go to Indiana for Thanksgiving. It would be a good cultural experience for these visiting students (even though we lived in the birthplace of Thanksgiving...). We left the fathers at home with their respective sides of the families. We took the van. Two middle-aged women and eight good-sized cousins, the Norwegian girl, and the Swedish girl, who was not happy at all to be there. She was convinced we wouldn't get back in time after Thanksgiving break and that she'd miss Driver's Ed. We wedged a cooler between the driver's and passenger's seats and the ten of us kids took turns sitting up front with the mothers. Keep in mind that Thanksgiving is in November and the only heat in the van was right up front. Everybody else sprawled out in the back with sleeping bags and pillows, trying to keep our noses warm. Everybody except the Swedish exchange student, that is. She was an only child and this was a new and most unpleasant experience for her, I'm afraid. She had brought along a a folding lawn chair, and sat bolt upright, wrapped in a quilt with a grim look on her face the whole way. And the whole way home. We got into a terrible blizzard in Ohio on the way home and were forced to stop for the night. (We usually drove the seventeen hours or so nonstop. There's even a family legend about my mother and my aunt switching off driving duty without ever slowing down the car.) So there we were, the two mothers, the eight cousins, the Norwegian girl, and one very disgruntled Swede, who was by this time kissing her U.S driver's license good-by, all packed into one motel room. This was my experience with family vacations.
My husband's family wasn't big on your typical family vacation, either. I mean like Disneyland or the Grand Canyon. The big family vacation thing for them was the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City once or twice. However, my father-in-law was an English professor, and they did, through his work, have opportunities for travel as a family. They were able to spend a year in Finland when the kids were young, and while there they traveled all over Europe in their Volkswagen bus. Five kids and Grandma, stopping at campsites, setting up the tent... They still have that tent. And years later, when the kids were older, they spent a semester or two in London. These were wonderful opportunities, but when the kids would complain and ask "How come we've never been to Disneyland?" their parents would say "Well, how many of your friends have traveled all over Europe? Hmmm?"
Somehow, as great as Europe was, it just didn't make up for missing out on Disneyland. So when my husband and I got married and started our family, we decided that family vacations would be a priority with us. And then we promptly moved vacations to the bottom of the priority list. In thirteen years of marrige we've taken only two family vacations.
I'm not counting visiting relatives. If I did, I could make it sound a lot more impressive. Thanks to frequent flyer miles my husband has accumulated during business travel over the years, the kids and I have been able to fly back to Cape Cod most summers to visit my parents. And when we lived back East, we were able to fly west and visit my husband's family. But as far as real family vacations go, we've only done two.
"We never go anywhere," our daughter would whine. "I'm the only kid in my class who's never been to Disneyland."
"How do you know?" I'd ask. "Has someone taken a survey?"
"No, but kids always say 'I've been to Disneyland three times. How many times have you been?' I've even lied , Mom, and said I've been once, but it was when I was really little so I don't remember much about it."
I actually started to feel a little sorry for her when she told me this, but what I said was "Well, how many of your friends have been to Cape Cod? Hmmm?"
"Mom, my friends have never even heard of Cape Cod."
One of our children, on the occasion of an outing to the fitness facility at my husband's place of employment, said, "I love coming here! Since I've never actually seen Disneyland, I think this is my favorite place to go."
Pathetic. Oh, so pathetic. My husband and I exchanged glances. Did we feel guilty that our children could be so easily placated?
Up until this time, we had taken one family vacation. When our three oldest children were seven, four and two, we actually planned and carried out a trip to San Diego. We went to Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park. (We didn't feel like the boys were old enough to fully appreciate Disneyland.) We had a wonderful time, and when we returned home, Kent and I renewed our vow to make family vacations a priority.
Well, four years somehow sped by, and we had become parents for the fourth time. Our youngest was now three. Too young to fully appreciate Disneyland, but at the same time, our daughter was eleven, and would perhaps be too old to fully appreciate Disneyland by the time her baby brother was old enough. We needed to do this for her, we decided. Plus, we needed to make an honest sixth grader out of her.
"Wouldn't it be fun," I said to Kent, "if we surprised them? Just got them up one morning and said 'Get dressed-We're going to Disneyland!" This is exactly what we decided to do. We made all of our plans. We decided on dates and made hotel reservations. For weeks I worried about slipping up in front of the kids and giving the whole thing away. I even wrote in fake appointments on my kitchen calendar on those days so they wouldn't suspect anything. Finally it was the night before the big day. We got the kids to bed as usual, as it was (or they thought it was) a school night. I waited until I was certain they were all asleep, then I began the packing and we got the car loaded. It was pretty late by the time we got to bed. Kent, naturally, fell asleep right away. To me, it was like trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, which is still, to this year, next to impossible for me. I lay there, thinking about the morning, watching the clock... When I finally did sleep, it was a sleep filled with dreams about the kids getting up, wandering out to the garage and finding the car all loaded up before we could spring it on them.
Finally the alarm went off. We had this all planned out. We got the kids up as we always did on school mornings and gathered in the family room. We are in the habit of starting out each day with a family prayer; We like to take advantage of all the help we can get, raising four kids... Our second son was his usual grouchy morning self, and collapsed on the floor near the couch. It was my husband's turn to offer the prayer. I was peeking towards the end when he asked, "And please bless us and protect us today as we travel to Disneyland." That grouchy little six-year-old's head shot right up and looked around. After Kent finished the prayer, nobody moved or said a word. I don't think any of them were breathing. Finally, our oldest son asked, "Uhhh, did he say Disneyland?"
"Get dressed!" we yelled. "We're going to Disneyland!"
It was better than Christmas morning. And I've never seen the kids move so fast. They were dressed with teeth brushed in record time. I didn't even have to nag. We got everyone loaded into the minivan (a seat belt for everyone-imagine that) and began the thirteen hour drive. I had good intentions of helping with the driving, but was soon nodding off, aware only of my mouth falling open occasionally. It had been a short night for me, or a long one, depending on how you looked at it.
We had the best time. The kids were great travelers. The excitement kept them from complaining about the day in the car. Of course we had a wonderful time at Disneyland. We broke up the trip home, stopping in Las Vegas to visit friends.
We arrived home happy, tired, and recommitted to keeping family vacations at the top of the priority list.