Dead in 70 years anyway.
So reads the Instagram tagline of someone I know well, like a self-referential epitaph. This person is a teenager every bit as tormented, apparently, as I was at his age. The difference is that today the world can know your torment, which is not confined between the cardboard covers of a journal. The torment is no less acute for its publicity.
I went on vacation with this person.
The idea of vacation is in many ways as absurd to me as the idea of retirement. I am blessed with the good fortune to live in a part of the world that many consider to be a premier vacation destination. Blessed, too, with satisfying work I cannot see wanting to stop because I pass some arbitrary chronological age. So, just as I feel there will be no need to retire, there is no need for me to vacation. What folly, then, drove me onto an airplane with my family?
We planned the trip because I felt, after several years stuck at home in my routines like a hamster exercising on the same sorry wheel day after day, an almost insuperable need for something to change. What better way to satisfy this need than to yank everyone out of their comfortable routines for two weeks? Plus, as the keeper of the family’s emotional life, it falls to me to curate the future, to make a memory we can all carry with us. (I didn’t say it had to be a pleasant memory.)
I’ve learned a lot in the years since our last family vacation. Most importantly, that life unfolds primarily within my own head. This is both frightening and terribly empowering. Ergo: the mildly disappointing AirBNB apartment we check into on the Upper East Side of Manhattan will be of the same proportions whether I am ecstatic or bellicose. The same patina of grime will dim the walls; the same four measly, mismatched bath towels reeking of cigarette smoke will be stacked on the bathroom shelves; the foldout couch where Son #2 is designated to sleep by the chronological superiority of his older brother will still tilt him onto the floor and puncture his back with errant springs. These facts are immune to my emotions.
I used to look down my nose at those Pollyannas spouting earnest self-help bullshit about making the world what you want it to be and changing your attitude to change your attitude, but I’m starting to think there may be something to it. The evening we check in to our apartment, I make a conscious decision to be cheerful rather than glum.
Perhaps because of this, I find my emotional ship much more easily righted on this family trip than the last. Last time, Son #1’s intense turbulence just about sank me, leaving me with such a taste of bitter adolescent animosity that I was unwilling to attempt another getaway with the family for close to five years. This time, the travails—oops, travels?—are colored with the chest-souring ache of knowing this will be the last trip of our nuclear familyhood. I know this getaway is a somewhat selfish paean to my own role as a mother, a constructed experience I can cling to as I dodder into my later years. But then, aren’t all vacations?
My family members will have their own experiences. They will feel the hot garbagey breath of Manhattan riffling their hair as we catch the train at 96th Street. They will marvel at the sheer volume of humanity streaming past on every street and avenue. They will develop an affection for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and praise New York bagels, which, no matter how hard anyone tries, cannot be adequately reproduced in California. They will discover the morally complicated joys of Uber. They will notice the wave of emotion that unexpectedly grips their mother as she stands on a hot gray afternoon staring into the Nihilist’s dream of a memorial at One World Trade Center, black rectangles within the footprints of the fallen towers. They will prick up their ears to the sound of the Charles Mingus Orchestra at the Jazz Standard, where we eat an expensive but much-needed meal while bathed in the club’s reddish glow.
It occurs to me that the role I simultaneously cherish and resent as keeper of the family’s emotions is not unlike my simultaneously adored and reviled role as chief cook and nutrient dispenser. Perhaps, as in the kitchen, if I relinquish even a tiny bit my death grip on all the feelings of the family, my fellow travelers on this intimate journey will be freer to feel and bear their own experiences.
This, then, is the promise I make on the morning we leave New York City for the second half of our putative vacation in the country, in the house my father built and bequeathed to me on his passing and that of my mother: to let go, just a little bit. Already, Son #1 has asked if he can return home early (impossible, for many logistical reasons) and my emotional ship has spent a few minutes quaking in the wind of his unhappiness. (Or is it my perception of his unhappiness? No, he has stated outright that a stay in the country will engender that most horrendous of feelings, boredom.)
With this promise held close—let them feel their own damn feelings and occasionally cook their own damn pancakes—I go from bed to bed on this final morning in our now-familiar rented apartment, performing yet another task that seems always to fall exclusively to me: rousing everyone from sleep to start the day.
And now for something completely different
Check out my latest short story, just published by Sand Hill Review, “Put the Sweater on the Dog.” I’d love to hear what you think!