Biker wave

While vacationing in Florida and visiting a couple of amusement parks during Fall Break, I came to a realization: We parents need our own biker wave. You know what I’m talking about—a motorcyclist passing a fellow motorcyclist takes his left hand off the handlebar and does a peace sign with two fingers pointing to the ground.

 

It’s a show of camaraderie. It’s a way of saying, “Hey there, fellow human with similar life experiences! I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool!” (Or something like that. I’m not a motorcyclist so I couldn’t say for sure what that small hand gesture means, but it seems positive. All I know is it doesn’t work as well with minivans.)

 

I had this epiphany while watching a mom, dad and two young sons at Sea World. The dad had hit his limit. His older son was whining to the point that he had apparently lost his ability to walk normally. The dad was attempting to move him forward through the crowd and the boy was floppily walking like he was the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Ozbeing forcefully removed from a sit-in against Munchkin oppression.

 

Once they made it to a short brick wall that served the dual purpose of creating a flower bed and providing seating to all of the hot and weary park attendees, the dad roughly sat the son down and told him not to get up. The boy began to cry, maybe from physical hurt but mostly from having his father lose his cool and aim it in his direction, while the dad looked at the Sea World map in his hands.

 

I couldn’t stop watching this scene. It just felt so familiar. Your kids, those darlings you would lay down in front of a bus for, can make you straight up crazy. I noticed right away that this particular family was comprised of adopted children with mom and dad of one skin color and sons of another. So from my own experience, I knew there were so many layers to what was playing out in front of me.

 

The crying son stood and tried to grab his dad around the middle, but the dad peeled him off and told him to sit back down. The mom who had been talking to the younger son sitting in the stroller calmly stepped in and said, “Let him hug you.” But the dad wasn’t ready to receive affection. He was mad. The mom hugged the son instead, and in a few moments they were on the move again, in search of rides or treats or shows.

 

Before we left the park, I saw this same family and the dad was holding the older son in his arms while the boy slept, his face cradled in the dad’s neck and his little arm slung across the dad’s strong shoulder. They had made their peace.

 

I wanted to reach out to this family and say something encouraging. I wouldn’t offer advice or try to show them how to parent their boys. I just wanted to flash that biker wave as if to say, “This is really hard, isn’t it? I’m sorry you guys had that moment of tension and separation, but I bet you get more things right than you get wrong, so keep on going. I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool.”

Fall Break 2017: New England

When our family of 6 recently toured New England, we learned a lot about history, geography, and regional customs, but we also learned a lot about ourselves.

 

We learned that some of us are like junkies looking for our next hit when it comes to searching for sweet tea at a restaurant. (This especially applies to taverns where George Washington ate.)

We learned that the White Mountains National Forest is impossible to improve upon. It is breath-taking and awe-inspiriting, even without the snow.

Along those same lines, we learned that my husband likes to stop at vistas when driving through beautiful landscapes. There’s something so adorable about how many pictures he took of trees and flowers and distant mountains.

We learned that the highway signs in New Hampshire have a profile of the Old Man of the Mountain, a natural formation that used to jut out the side of Cannon Mountain until it fell off. Apparently they were pretty proud of it.

We learned to fall in love with a cannoli, and we learned that Ezra prefers his meatballs to be bite-sized and not, in his words, “as big as my face.”

We learned that none of us are good at imitating a New England accent. We all come off sounding like a bad impersonation of the guy from the Pepperidge Farm commercials.

We learned that the first week of October is a great time to travel to New England…if you are over 65. We saw very few other children. This wasn’t a deterrent to our fun, and as a side bonus when my kids held the door open for all the grandmas and grandpas they got a lot of “aren’t you a sweetheart?” kind of comments.

 

We learned that the Newport Cliff Walk is one of the coolest places to take a stroll. On one side it’s pounding waves on a rocky shoreline and on the other side it’s palatial mansions and imposing college buildings and lush green spaces.

We learned that the sand in New England is different from the sand we’re used to in the Gulf. (My son said that when he stepped on the Kennebunkport beach it was like his foot was cracking through a layer of Magic Shell on ice cream.)

We learned that the insides of a lobster can be pretty gross.

 

We learned that a good tour guide can make anything interesting—burial practices from the Colonial period, how Ben & Jerry clean out their ice cream machinery between flavors, or even baseball.


  

We learned that walking across a pedestrian bridge with Boston traffic whizzing by is not for the faint of heart.

We learned that when our 6-year old sees sailors from the US Navy in their white uniforms, assuming they are karate ninjas, he bows to them as if he’s just entered their dojo.

We learned that the Trapp family (think The Sound of Music) settled in Vermont and built the cutest Bavarian lodge with just the right amount of schmaltz.

We learned that our son Ezra says “Nemo” instead of “Uno” when he has one card left.

We learned that covering 5 states in one week with 4 kids isn’t easy, but bucket list items are supposed to be a challenge, right?

Migrating of our herd

When our family takes a vacation that requires a lot of walking, we have an unwritten rule about how we line up. Whether it’s Disney or Dollywood, hiking the Chimney Tops in the Smokys or strolling along the Cliff Walk in Rhode Island, Boston’s Freedom Trail or touring the Coca-Cola Museum, Graceland or Biltmore Mansion or the White House or the security line at the airport, we have an assigned order.

 

My husband—the leader, the trip planner, the trailblazer, the guy who has an innate sense of direction—is always at the front. He may have his cell phone out with a GPS app guiding him or a map with detailed landmarks to watch for or maybe he uses the stars…I’m just not totally sure. It’s all mystifying to me.

 

Me, on the other hand, possess a different skill set than my husband. I bring up the rear. I chant phrases like: “Let’s catch up with Dad” and “Put the rock down” and “Well, I have to hold your hand because you’re walking so slowly”.

 

The kids that span the distance between my husband and me rotate according to their whims, but mostly I am at the back with the youngest and/or whiniest of our children. It’s up to me to create games to keep their minds off of all of the walking (oh, the humanity, so much walking!) we’re doing in some of the most fun (theme parks), most beautiful (mountains), most important (Washington, D.C.) places they’ll ever visit.

 

I tell them stories. I hum songs for them to guess. We play games. (Side Note: Ezra plays I spy like this: “I pie with my little bit eye.”) We keep a running count of the dogs we pass. Whatever it takes to keep their little legs moving.

 

I don’t question the left turns and right turns our Line Leader chooses as we cross busy streets or get off at subway stops. And he doesn’t glance behind to make sure I’m not slacking on my job, letting our smallest, most vulnerable members of the herd lag behind. This is how our herd migrates—sometimes in single file, sometimes two-by-two, but always with a clear-eyed leader and a dedicated closer.

 

When our children are grown, I hope they will remember these family vacations, the inside jokes and the amazing sights and even the not-so-great moments of car sickness or nearly missed flights or constant bickering that turns fully rational adults into sitcom-style parents who say things like “So help me I will pull this car over!” These are the stuff of family legend.

 

But I also want them to remember how we moved as a unit. How we relied on each other and played to our strengths. How he stepped up to shoulder the community backpack full of snacks and water bottles. How she volunteered to give her little brother a piggy back ride when he just COULD NOT GO ON. How they made the best of something difficult and tried something new.

 

Because you don’t get to pick your family, and for better or for worse, this is our herd.

Collecting seashells

Beach vacation objectives can vary greatly, person to person.

 

For some, the highlight is a sunset stroll along the shore.

For some, the highlight is eating lots of fresh seafood and key lime pie.

For some, the highlight is relaxing by crashing waves while you catch up on your leisure reading.

 

And then there are those people who go to the beach with the full intention of picking up beach trash, ocean rejects, discarded debris, used mobile homes—a.k.a. seashells.

I’ve seen these people at every beach I’ve visited along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This is how you’ll recognize them: Their eyes will be trained downward, and they’ll be awkwardly grasping a handful of a sandy objects. They will dig in the sand with their bare toes or the tips of their shoes until they unearth what they hope will be the largest, most beautiful find the sea can offer.

 

They will gasp slightly when they raise a big, smooth seashell—its underbelly pink and shiny with Mother-of-Pearl iridescence—to their eye level only to sadly sigh when they see its imperfections, the holes and the sharp edge on one side where it broke apart. They will look wistfully out at the ocean, past the relentless waves, and wonder where its other parts lie buried in the dark and sandy depths.

 

But they will determine that some of these marine discoveries are worth keeping, and the next stop for their treasure trove may be a plastic sand bucket or a Styrofoam cooler. But these collectors won’t be satisfied if the final resting place for their beach beauties is such a commonplace container. No. They have big dreams. Dreams of making seashell jewelry—earrings and pendants. Dreams of filling glass jars with seashells and hot gluing them on picture frames. Dreams that most likely won’t actually come true once the daily grind of not being on vacation sets in but dreams nonetheless.

 

How do I know so much about these beachcombers? Because I used to be one, that’s why. I once collected a bucket full of sand dollars to bring home and make into Christmas ornaments. They stank so bad that my mom made me keep them outside. I bleached them and dried them out until they were brittle and unusable. All that fishy smell and Clorox bleach for nothing.

 

Even though I discourage my own children from bringing seashells on the 8-hour car ride home with us, I still find myself looking for that perfect shell as I walk with them along the beach each day we are on vacation. I will often pick up those fan-shaped scallop shells or the conch shell masterpieces or the bowl-shaped clam shells or the architecturally-mesmerizing nautilus shells and carry them on our stroll.

 

I don’t keep them. Their existence holds no purpose for me in landlocked Murfreesboro. But there’s something magical about their weight my hand. For me, the beach means standing on the edge of something, one foot on the sand and one foot in the ocean. It means a horizon that goes on and on to reveal the most glorious sunsets. It means not hurrying. It means holding hands and not because you’re crossing the street.

And it means a bucket full of seashells that have no value apart from their commonplace remarkability. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. Loveliness often where you search it out.