We took our first family vacation last week. We had been putting it off because traveling with an infant… No. Because traveling with a toddler… No.
But she’s like this whole little person now. A walking, talking, opinionated person. She tells us what she thinks about (usually Clifford and Dora). She tells us when she needs to go to the bathroom (miracle of miracles). She’ll be in preschool by the end of the summer.
And it had been a while since we’ve been able to catch up with our Virginia/DC friends.
So we planned a two-leg journey to take place over the span of one week. We would set out from our home in Dayton, Ohio to spend three days deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains and three days in the heart of Washington DC.
From the suburbs, to the country, to the city, moving along the range of total seclusion to total immersion.
If you’re a parent reading this blog, you understand that to combine children with the concept of “vacation” actually negates the whole concept. You know there will probably be no sleeping in. Someone will probably get sick. You’ll need to reorganize the whole landscape of how-things-are-done in order to get the kids through the day. So we really need a different word for “vacation with children.”
What follows are a few highlights from this “vacation.”
Highlight # 1: Rude Awakenings
From my perspective, the first night in Virginia was the nadir of our vacation. Doug discovered the mattresses in both rooms of the cabin were Tempur-Pedic mattresses, which unbeknownst to me, he is allergic to?
To add to our great luck, our daughter also showed signs of labored breathing after sleeping on it for an hour.
So both my husband and daughter slept in the main room of the cabin while I star-fished on the king sized mattress all to myself.
You’d think that I’d sleep quite well, but no.
Felicity coughed off and on the entire night. Allergies? A cold? It didn’t really matter. Then, she fell off the love seat/ottoman combo in the middle of the night followed by a tiny harmph! Then, she needed help falling asleep again. Now fully awake, I stayed up and submitted a post to Huffington Post (maybe this is the one the magic one that sticks?). I finally drifted off at 4:00 a.m.–only to be woken up at 5:30 by Felicity saying, “I want to watch Clifford.”
The good news is that I’m married to a great guy. And when I told him how little sleep I had gotten that night, he said he’d take her on a drive this afternoon so I could take a nap.
Highlight # 2: A Visit to our Friends’ Farm
On our first day, we visited our friends who got married a week before us ten years ago.
They have six children. Six. Yeah.
Felicity sits among the oldest five children.
They are a lovely family, really. They live in the middle-of-nowhere Virginia and they love it. Their children are a well-behaved, curious bunch and for our daughter, it was love at first sight. They surrounded her with games of “flying” from an overturned bucket onto the sofa and walked her around the yard where “Apple” (a lamb who thought herself a human) pranced in chaotic circles that occasionally sent a group of young chickens skittering.
We let Felicity take it all in. Doug made breakfast. I sat with the mother, Leslie, and we talked about our families and houses. She pointed out how much work her husband, Brian, had finished on their house, a farmhouse built in 1907.
“It causes me a lot of anxiety,” she laughed. “But it has come a long way.” She pointed out where he had taken out walls, installed the new kitchen sink and appliances. As the youngest girl, the newest member of the I-can-walk club, toddled around the dining area, I felt dizzy thinking about all of the work involved in raising six kids and taking care of a house, not to mention renovating it.
We talked lightly of politics, too. Although their political leanings are decidedly more conservative, we all shared common ground that this election year is completely bonkers.
Highlight # 3: A Bath and a Book
I took a luxurious 1 1/2 hour nap that afternoon, followed by a long bath in this amazing tub, the window open so the breeze could sweep in every now and then.
And yes, I was reading the second book in the Games of Thrones series. Ah… A true escape.
Our cabin was located about 30 minutes from any major town where you could buy things like milk and paper towels. It was far enough away from anything that you couldn’t hear any traffic. At all.
As we sat around the fire pit, it struck me just how vacant the air was of any unnatural noise. No traffic. No planes. No whirring, churning, clanking, clinking, or anything else that has become the background noise of my daily life. And in the absence of all of that white noise, I could finally hear the sound of the leaves in the trees. Crickets and robins. A woodpecker a mile away. The quiet whispers of blades of grass, kissed by the wind.
I thought about the people who lived on this land a hundred years ago. Two hundred years ago. Three hundred years ago. How much closer their existence directly depended on the earth.
I thought about how the goal of their whole lives was simply to live. To excel was to help their children reach adulthood. As those goals have become more easily achievable, we’ve begun to wade out into the ocean of human possibility. To our waists, our chests, our necks.
It can drown us if we’re not careful.
This wasn’t the first time that we stayed at this cabin.
Our first visit was in 2008 after a week-long vacation on Topsail Island, North Carolina with Doug’s brothers, their wives, and their kids. Instead of doing the whole trip back in one day, we stopped in Virginia and stayed at these newly opened cabins.
The heat of the August sun seemed to summon forth the scent of cabin’s pine walls. We opened the windows and the breeze sailed through. I sat on the porch with a cup of hot tea (Sweets, how can you drink hot tea in the summer?) and looked out on the treetops of the surrounding forest of Indian Valley, Virginia.
Our second visit was in March 2009. With seven of our friends, we pooled our resources and planned our own version of Iron Chef, over the course of three days, preceded of course by enormous breakfasts. Unfortunately, this meant visiting multiple local stores (all of them tiny since we were miles from larger cities), which also meant clearing out all their milk, eggs, and bacon, as well as whatever vegetables and meat they had on hand. We ate like glutinous royalty for three days.
When we signed the guest book, we made acronyms out of the letters of our first names.
Mine was: “Should Hiring Always Rely On Nepotism?”
Doug’s was less creative: “Dawesome, Oawesome, Uawesome, Gawesome.”
Highlight # 4: A Stunning View
Before we left the Blue Ridge Mountains, Doug drove Felicity and me to the top of the hill behind our friends’ farmhouse to get some pictures. The view was stunning.
“Fine. Don’t look at the camera.”
Because my husband is my husband, he decided to get his car detailed before we went on vacation. Our friend, Debbie, asked me why. I shrugged.
“Because Doug is Doug.”
What I didn’t know at that time was that he would also insist that we get the car washed before we entered DC.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’m not bringing a dirty car into our nation’s capitol.”
Honest to God, that’s what he said.
(Doug desires that you know that he didn’t get his car detailed, just “washed.” And he wants you to know that he didn’t want his car looking like it had been through backwoods Virginia.)
Highlight # 5: Re-aligning Space Expectations
On Wednesday, we relocated to Washington, D.C., where we stayed in an apartment listed on Airbnb. Best decision ever. Two hundred dollars per day bought us a 600 square-foot garden level apartment in the heart of Capitol Hill.
The thing that always jars me when I travel to big cities (Boston, New York, D.C., Paris, London) is how tiny the living spaces are compared to my suburban Ohio standards. At least, according to how much I can afford to pay. Everything shrinks. The space around the sink shrinks. The counter space shrinks. The space between the television and the sofa shrinks. The dining area shrinks.
It makes me feel… a little wasteful. I’m usually a very resource-conscious person, but readjusting my size expectations on trips like this helps me to realign my expectations.
After we watched John Oliver’s latest episode of Last Week Tonight, I looked around the apartment and said, “How much do you think a place like this goes for?”
Doug grimaced. “Yeah, I was curious too, so I looked.”
“This location, this size… about $450,000.”
Highlight # 6: Remembering Why We’re Not Big-City Folk
“Would you ever want to move out to D.C.?” our friends, Greg and Susan, asked as our kids play in the Building Zone area of the National Building Museum.
“I mean, it’s expensive,” I shrugged. “But if I got a decent-paying job, we could probably make it financially, still… I’m just at a point in my life when I understand that what makes me happiest is to have the strong social support network around me. We’d be leaving our friends. A lot of our family. All the people that we know.”
Doug chimed in and added that we could never afford to have a place in this area with as many possibilities for having a yard.
“Not to mention all the meat-processing and woodworking that goes on in our house.”
And you thought I was kidding…
“And then, there’s the commute to work,” I added. “It’s twenty-five minutes in Dayton. In rush hour. Which lasts about one hour.”
It’s a lovely fantasy to imagine living “the high life” in an upscale part of a big city. But I know that I’m always happier just visiting. I’m too much of a Midwestern gal to be comfortable in a city where I’m constantly caught between feeling unworthy around the rich folk and feeling spoiled around the poor folk.
Highlight #7 : Running around the National Mall
On Thursday morning, I checked the weather. Fifty-two degrees, but no rain. I slid my tennis shoes on and pushed the butterflies down in my stomach.
I was going to run around the National Mall.
Okay, I reasoned with myself, Maybe you won’t make it the whole way. But just do as much as you can.
I started at the corner of 4th Street and C Street and turned down Maryland Avenue NE. I started with a slow jog, just to warm up. It wasn’t raining, but a constant mist permeated the air, matting down my hair. I don’t usually get allergies, but something was causing my left eye to water.
Within the first half mile, I saw a building come into view.
Oh, wow. That’s the Supreme Court.
I kept going to the Capitol Building, passing by information kiosks and police officers at their posts.
I took note of all the other runners out there with me. Men, women, young, old. There was this whole running culture out here chugging up and down the National Mall.
Oh my God, it occurred to me. I’m part of a running culture. How did that happen so fast?
It took longer than I thought to get to Washington Monument, and I checked my progress. About 3 miles. I looked ahead to the Lincoln Memorial and thought, Ah, what the hell.
And I swear to God, in that last stretch of track leading to Lincoln Memorial, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came up on Pandora. My left eye still watering, the mist dampening my ponytail, I picked up the pace.
My love is alive, way down in my heart, although we are miles apart.
If you ever need, a helping hand, I’ll be there on the double, just as fast as I can.
I ran up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, completely giddy with myself. I threw up my arms in victory at the top and gave a thumbs-up to a pair of Japanese tourists. With my heart rate at 178, I slowly made my way down the steps and looked out across the Mall.
Oh my God. The realization started to sink in. It’s another three miles back to the apartment.
I tried not to think about it too much. Thinking too much is always my weakness. So instead of measuring the way home in miles, I measured it in songs.
Highlight # 8: Seeing What Her Daycare Teachers See, Every Day, All Day
Kids are always changing, that much is certain. So in this week-long vacation, here is what we learned about our daughter’s current development.
- Her maximum walking time is about three blocks. Then, you need to alternate carrying and walking.
- She has developed a more sophisticated way of saying, No. It’s “I don’t want to!”
- She has a new imaginary friend, Nemo the Fish. She loses him all the time, but he magically ends up in either my hand or Doug’s. All the time. You should never pretend to eat Nemo. The consequences are devastating. At least for a whole minute.
- She loves to say, “Okay? Okay.” Kind of like, Permission? Granted.
- Her vocabulary is sharpening, but continues to provide endless amusement with phrases like, “No, I don’t want eat a muffin-man!”
- She actually remembers what I read to her. One night, I read out of a kid’s flower encyclopedia (her choice, not mine). The next day, she stared out the car window and wistfully called out for “Jack-in-the-Pulpit.”
Jack-in-the-Pulpit flower (Wikipedia)
We had to choose between ending our vacation at Jefferson Memorial with the sun going down. Or staying at our friends’ house, talking about nothing in particular.
We stayed with our friends.
Because that’s the kind of people we are.
Because that’s how we’re raising our daughter to be.
Highlight # 9: Bending the Rules on Screen Time… For the Sake of Sanity
We are kind of staunchly opposed to training our daughter to expect to always be entertained. Read: buying a car with an already installed DVD player. Too tempting to resist the urge to turn on a video every time we’re in the car.
Instead, we packed the car with books, stuffed animals, and doodling/drawing materials.
We survived the first six-hour leg of the journey to Virginia without DVDs. And the next five-hour leg to D.C. But when we hit the five-hour wall during the eight-hour trek home (complete with Felicity pulling at the car seats straps and reeling into a wailing I-don’t-want-to-sit-car!!), we went to what Doug calls “Defcon Dora.”
Sometimes, it feels good to be flexible.
This wasn’t like any vacation I ever had before. My mind was rarely completely at ease. Sometimes I didn’t sleep well. We didn’t plan each and every meal, although as foodies, it’s tempting. It wouldn’t have allowed us to remain flexible. And when you’re with a toddler and it’s raining and you’ve got another six blocks to go, you just need to pick a place and eat.
I’m not sure when we’ll be able to resume vacations that actually feel like a true break from all responsibility.
But in the meantime, these trips give us the time and space to lay down our other roles and just be…