I distinctly remember my mother always saying the same thing when we went on vacation:
“This is no vacation for me.”
For the first decade of my life, Atlantic City was our vacation destination. We didn’t have much money then. Those were the days when, towards the end of the month when dad’s paycheck was running out, we ate Campbell’s soup for dinner. In AC, we rented the attic of a rooming house owned by a congenial woman who covered her considerable girth with housedresses. She gave my sister and me pieces of fudge in her cramped kitchen. My mother recalls that the room had no air conditioning. At night, we would lie awake, sweating. In the morning, Dad would sit on the porch playing penny poker with the owner and some other folks who were staying there while we lolled around in the common room watching TV with the other kids. One of these kids told me that your body continuously made blood. Getting a cut was God’s way of making the excess blood come out. I believed him. When we tired of TV, we begged my mother to walk on the boardwalk and buy us salt water taffy or go swimming. I remember, some days, there were so many jelly fish in the water that we couldn’t go in. They would wash up on the beach clear and gelatinous. I poked them with a stick, fascinated and full of fear, unsure if they could muster one last attempt to impale me with a stinging cell.
After the casinos came in 1980, we started going up to Cape Cod. There the beaches had horseshoe crabs and were speckled with black flakes of iron. My mother showed us that a magnate could draw specks up out of the sand. They coated the magnate the same way my father’s several-day-old beard furred his face. The dunes were magnificent then. Stories high. It was back before crossing them with dune buggies or climbing them on foot was outlawed due to erosion. Once, standing at the top of a dune that overlooked the ocean, my sister leaned forward too far and fell. My mother watched from the top horrified and helpless as Jennifer tumbled head over feet, kicking up clouds of sand, to where my father stood at the bottom. Miraculously, she was fine.
We always went back to the same place in North Truro. It was an efficiency—two double beds: one for my parents and one for my sister and I—and a kitchenette. It was the efficiency that made our home away from home all too much like home for my mother. She cooked, which she hated, she cleaned, which she also detested, and then she had us to deal with. Sisters, 18-months apart, living in close quarter, stealing each others blankets, leaving clams in our suitcases only to be discovered once a foul smell permeated the room.
I don’t mean for it to sound like our vacations were squalid. We had fun, too: my father waking me up in the wee hours of the morning to gaze at a sky singing with stars. Comets whizzed past and I wished on every one. Watching crabs skitter sideways in Welfleet, and taking out a Boston Whaler in the bay. Watching the sun set into the water…one of the few places you can do that on the East Coast.
Now, as an adult…a mother, I am embarking on my own family vacations. This past week, Sophia and I drove 400 miles to New Hampshire to spend the week at a friend’s lake house. Like my mother once had, I prepared well. I took all the comforts of home: the pack n’ play, the portable high chair, bags of organic food, Snakie Pie, her pink flannel blanket, a stack of books, the monitor….it filled the trunk of my Outback and then some. Sophie was a gem in the car. I broke up the trip into 2-3 hour increments—two hours, lunch with a friend in NY, two hours, a hotel in CT. We chatted, snacked, listened to hours of Dr. Seuss on CD, played I SPY, and she looked at the books while I listened to Fresh Air. As we neared the hotel I fretted about how to bring everything and Sophie inside. But it was simple. To Sophie’s glee, I loaded her and the suitcases onto a cart. In the hotel, Sophie was giddy with adventure. She ran through the hallways and pressed the elevator buttons with abandon. Once inside our suite, she flicked every light switch on and off. The bedroom had a whirlpool tub for two. We climbed in together and she squealed with delight when I turned on the jets.
The next morning we drove to the lake. There was intimacy in it just being the two of us. It was work, but a joyous labor. I prided myself on maintaining some level of consistency in an alien space.
The days went like this: Sophie woke me at our usual time. I changed her diaper, dressed her for the day and made her breakfast. My friend’s twin six-year-old boys joined us and I played with the three of them until lunch. Again, I fed Sophia, put her down for a nap and went to my room to steal an hour and a half for myself. Then it was back on the job, with a diaper change and preparations to go swimming…a coating of sunscreen (more protection from micro-organisms in duck excrement than from the sun), bathing suit and swim shoes. I’d carry her over the pebbled yard to the deck, squeeze her into the life jacket, sit her on the raft and push her around the dock like royalty. I held onto the side of the raft treading water, the top half of me placid and smiling, and beneath the surface my legs doing everything they could to keep us afloat.
Then it was bathtime, dinner, and her bedtime routine. The twins took turns reading Fox in Socks to Sophie while I brushed her teeth. And finally, twelve hours from when she first woke, I carried her to bed, laid her in the pack-and-play, and sang her a lullaby. The boys watched from the doorway, laying in wait to beg me to play Parcheesi or Life or Cranium.
Was it fun? Most definitely, but not the sort of fun I’m used to having on vacation. It was a vicarious fun—the pleasure of experiencing the vacation through Sophie.
Was it a vacation? If we are to rely on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word (“freedom, release, or rest from some occupation, business or activity”) I’d have to agree with my mother. No, it was not. It was a different backdrop, a change in milieu, but it most definitely not a vacation.
I suspect there is no vacation from motherhood.