Poised to Run: Why I Hate Vacation
I love traveling. And during pandemic lockdown, I have missed traveling.
I don’t, however, miss vacation.
We vacationed a lot as a kid, especially when you consider how broke we were. My dad would take all of August off and we’d take a road trip, usually cross-country or close to it. This happened when I was little, maybe 6 or 7 years old, and continued into my teen years, until I went to college. Apparently there was an abandoned attempt cross country when I was less than six months old, that ended in Miami, Oklahoma when I wouldn’t stop throwing up and my dad checked us into a motel where the carpet ran up the wall.
The summer I was 14 my mother had me keep a suitcase packed so that we could leave at any time, without notice. All of my clean clothes were kept on this reserve so that if my dad woke up early with an itch to travel, we could just load the car and go. I hated it. It felt like being on permanent guard, in a suspended state of flight. It was never completely clear to me what we were running from, just like it was never clear what we weren’t talking about.
My dad liked pain killers and he liked speed, and vacations were usually fueled by both, with the rush of making good time and the inevitable crash, which I learned was normal, on a grassy hill in an amusement park, on a bench at the beach. My mother made cheap sandwiches out of white bread and potted meat. At night, we got donuts in the motel room and cranked the air, because we didn’t have it at home.
I almost drowned on vacation, at about three years old, in a motel swimming pool, in I think Maine. I think my grandmother, who I mostly don’t remember, was with us also. I remember being on the cement pool steps with my mother. She would hold me and bob up and down, the water lapping up under my chin. Then she put me on the steps and said, “Don’t go anywhere.” I watched her back as she swam away. I held onto the stainless steel railing. She was the same age I am now, with a toddler, which feels impossible to me. I know now what she wanted, to stretch her body in the water, to feel for just a minute what it was like to be unencumbered, light, free, and moving.
But I stepped down. Just from the middle step to the third step, which was over my head.
I remember the sight of the horizon of water, of my head, bobbing again, above and under the surface. I don’t remember anything else, just that movement, that split sky of water / air, as I tried to keep myself up.
My brother pulled me out, which I also don’t remember, or what it felt like in the moments following, if I was in trouble, if I got spanked or hollered at. I remember the feeling of going back to an exquistely cold room, soaking wet and shivering, and not having the air turned off. I think I told my grandmother her feet were ugly. She’d worked her entire life as a farmer. They were ugly, and amazing. Women on my mom’s side of the family didn’t wear makeup or get pampered. They worked hard physical labor, and sometimes they just wanted a goddamn minute alone in the pool.
Vacations are hard for mothers, who continue to be mothers and wives and heads of household, regardless of where they are. You can rent a beach house, but you still have to make meals, wash towels, put sunscreen on little shoulders, bandage sand-scraped knees. Your teenager or your two-year old will still have a meltdown. There will be crying, and drinking. There will also be laughing, and sunburns, elaborate sand castles and board games in the rain.
And when you get back, you will feel like you need a vacation.
I don’t think I ever recovered from the summer of being permanently poised to run. And I worry about what kind of neuroses I’ve passed onto my own children, what things I’ve taught them with all this shit that I’m still uncovering, still working through, still healing.
There’s a family trip to the lake house this summer, coordinated by my mother-in-law, and paid for with money she inherited from her mother, who died within weeks of mine, in the fall of 2019. It’s already fraught with emotion.
There will be crying, and drinking.
But not my younger son, who has said plainly that he doesn’t want to go. In our conversations about it, he told me he has never enjoyed vacation, never had fun at a beach house or a lake house with extended family. Vacations are hard for littles too, out of their routine, eating strange foods, sleeping in a strange bed, family members who sometimes feel like strangers picking you up, or putting their ugly feet on display. I looked through some old pictures of him, and found picture after picture of first days on vacation, of his baby body wrenched on the floor of a beach house, or a hotel bed, furious and crying. He never wanted to be there. It hasn’t changed.
One thing he has taught me is that he cannot be forced into anything, and that maybe forcing shouldn’t be a thing you do to your kids. When he didn’t want to play soccer, at two years old, he sat down in the middle of the YMCA gym. When he didn’t want to take swim lessons, he anchored himself to the side of the pool and you couldn’t get him in. He
knows what he wants. He is clear about communicating it. He’s not confused or spoiled or manipulating. He’s the king of his own self-preservation.
I wish I’d had that as a kid, living out of a suitcase, nearly drowning, waiting for my father to wake up from his nap.