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.