I have a theory about vacation: You should spend most, if not all, of it being the person you don’t get to be during the rest of your days.
For me, that means ignoring emails and refusing to adhere to a schedule.
For my 8-year-old son, it means ignoring vegetables and sleeping in his clothes.
Clearly, we are made for road trips.
So when my daughter was invited to spend spring break in London with her friend and her friend’s mom, my husband hauled out the atlas — the one he’s saved from childhood, with his name carefully written on the inside cover in his fanciest, grade-school handwriting — and suggested we pick some states to cover.
It would just be my son and I. My husband had work obligations; my stepson had high school obligations. Our options were endless and had only to please two, compared with our usual party of four or five.
My son suggested we hit Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to visit the Titanic Museum, a destination he’s dreamed about since we read “I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912” in first grade. We settled on that as stop No. 1 and built a loose itinerary from there, with stops in Kentucky (Cumberland Falls, Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center) and Indiana (Purdue’s campus, Lucas Oil Stadium) on our loop back toward Illinois.
We had a blast.
It was a gift to spend five uninterrupted days together, rolling with each other’s rhythms, giggling at each other’s jokes, answering each other’s questions, playing Lewis to each other’s Clark.
If you can swing something similar with a kid in your life, I highly recommend it.
Now, if I may, a few suggestions/observations:
Download Judy Blume audiobooks. Lots of them. We blew through the entire “Fudge” series (“Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Superfudge,” “Fudge-a-Mania,” “Double Fudge”), and I’m not sure who enjoyed them more. After each book, we chatted about what we imagined the characters looked like and whom they reminded us of in our real lives.
Play car games they don’t sell in stores. Two of our favorites: Guess How the Starbucks Barista Will Spell Heidi (which has the added benefit of providing an excuse to make frequent Starbucks stops). And Make an Acronym Ridiculous, inspired by the ISAF (I Swallowed A Fly) Club in “Fudge-a-Mania.” (“Isabel Sponsored A Frog!” “Is Sushi A Fruit?” “Igloos Stop Around Florida!”)
The Titanic Museum is worth a visit. They hand you tickets with real passengers’ names on them, and you find out at the end whether you survived. Both of us did, which prompted us to Google ourselves later and read about our post-Titanic lives. My son went on to join the Royal Navy. I went on to be active in fascist politics and serve time in prison.
Say yes to all the mini golf. Especially the place in Pigeon Forge called Crave, where you have to begin each hole by spinning a wheel that gives you a command. (“Stand on one foot while you putt.” “Putt with your eyes closed.” “Spin around 5 times before you putt.”)
Carve out plenty of time for the Muhammad Ali Center. We arrived on a rainy day, thankfully, so there was no pressure to rush and get back outside. Ali’s life is a gorgeous example of living your principles, even when it costs you dearly, and that’s not an example you want to hurry through. I loved watching my son slowly soak in Ali’s story.
Know that “Family Feud” is PG-13 viewing. We spent a couple of nights binge-watching Game Show Network. (See, vacation theory.) I found myself answering questions about the human anatomy and its various nicknames that, I’ll be honest, I didn’t see coming.
Bring a journal. I wanted to write down everything my son said, so I could look back and remember exactly what he was like on this trip. I only jotted down a few lines, but one of them will melt me forever: “Mom. Can we end the day eating cake and jumping on the bed?” (We did.)
Don’t eat sushi from a mall food court. I feel this one explains itself.
Embassy Suites has free happy hours. Just saying.
Understand that you may, at some point, envy the parent back home. The one who’s not sharing a string of hotel rooms with a young child or driving for hours in pouring rain or eating mall sushi. Nothing to feel guilty about.
Know that you will, also, feel indescribably lucky for this time. Especially when your child asks, “Can we skip there?” (When was the last time someone asked you to skip there?)
Cherish it all. The highlights (which are many) and the lowlights (which are few and mostly revolve around mall sushi). Vacation is where you get to live a slightly different version of your life, but it’s still part of the great big story that you’re writing as you go. And it doesn’t make any sense if you skip the hard parts.