When I was growing up, there was never any question where we would spend our summer vacation. My parents had been frequenting the same place ten years before I came on the scene, and they weren’t about to stop. Miami Beach, Florida: the Fabulous Waikiki Motel on Collins Avenue. Two rooms on the second floor of the middle column of buildings, one with a kitchenette, and one without. My grandmother and I shared the smaller room; my parents had the other. We brought our own electric rice cooker and used it to make rice every night. Three or four nights a week, my father went out deep-sea fishing on Cap Rudy’s boat; he’d return at dawn with red snapper wrapped in newspaper, and we ate it raw, sashimi-style, over hot rice. Lunch was a bologna sandwich, prepared by my mother, followed by a quick-melting chocolate ice cream cone from the ice cream shop below our room.
In its heyday, the Fabulous Waikiki was a mecca for families from all over the country; they had high dive shows, sandcastle contests, Bingo games, an arts and crafts room and swimming lessons going all day in the three pools (one salt water, one fresh, one kiddie). But over the years, the place changed; the family activities vanished. By the time I graduated from college, my parents were still renting the same rooms every summer, but it had gotten seedy, the rooms filled with a dozen people each, blaring their music, drinking and drugging. Bingo and movies were long gone.
Our family doesn’t have a favorite family spot; instead we strike out for a new and different destination every summer. Before our children were born, my husband and I made a practice of spending our vacation time in Mexico or Central America, living with local families and studying Spanish for five hours a day. That was our tradition. We’ve taken our daughters to Guatemala and Cuernavaca a few times, but when my mother showed up, we knew she wouldn’t feel comfortable in Latin America. She doesn’t like it when people speak a “foreign language” in front of her. We worried about her sensitive digestive system.
Where do five radically different people go for vacation? If you were to ask our daughters, they’d say their ideal vacation is the circus camp they’ve been attending since they were small. My mother might say Miami Beach, but it would make her too sad to go there without my father and grandmother. My husband would say La Antigua, Guatemala. I’d say a cabin in the woods where they bring me my lunch in a wicker basket and let me write all day long.
So we’ve had to experiment and compromise. One of our best trips was an adventurous week in Japan, where we negotiated the trains and restaurants, the sheer funny unfamiliar charming bizarreness of a completely different country. We took a brief foray to Las Vegas, and soaked ourselves in Cirque de Soleil shows and mile-long buffets. We even went to Mexico, to an all-inclusive resort that wouldn’t feel too “foreign” for Mom. It was just fine.
Earlier this summer, the girls practiced their stilting and clowning techniques at circus camp. That left the grownups all alone. No kids and a nice long weekend. If on my own, I’d hightail it to a writing cabin. If with my husband solo, we’d pick some romantic spot or maybe take a quick trip to Mexico. But there was an awkward trio now: me, my husband and Mom. So much for romance.
But then I remembered: my grandmother went with my parents on every vacation they ever went on. They didn’t call it “Life In the Sandwich.” It was just life. She enjoyed getting out, going for car rides, seeing new places. They weren’t about to go anywhere and leave her all alone. And so it is with us.
The first few days after the girls left, the elements of our family shifted and tumbled. It feels different when there are three of us instead of five, and it matters which three it is. We had pork chops with applesauce for dinner, my mother’s request, something the kids would not want to eat. That night, the three of us sat and watched a marathon number of “The Dog Whisperer” episodes. We cringed and laughed at the Bad Dogs, then cheered when Caesar worked his miracles. We wondered out loud if he could make a sixteen-year-old, half-paraplegic dog go from incontinent to continent. It was a companionable evening, the three of us older folks together.
Then we left for our long weekend outing: Yosemite. A pretty place, a place where we could hang out or go hiking or sit at the pool, read a book. Write. We took a mini-bus tour through Yosemite, climbing up to Glacier Point, posing for photos in front of the Giant Sequoias. Taking a bus tour through a National Park is something my husband and I thought we would never do. Twenty years ago, we backpacked up to Vogelsang, above Tuolumne Meadows. We were backcountry travelers, not about to do what the Valley-bound tourists do. But when you’re traveling with an 84-year-old grandma, you do what the grandmas do.
The next day, we passed on the park tours and opted to sit by the pool surrounded by redwoods. We read our books: Alice Munro stories for me, a Russell Banks novel for hubby and a cat mystery for my mom. We wrote postcards to the girls at camp and then my mom and I perused the gift shop for a care package of grizzly bear pajamas. The three of us took a leisurely break for lunch and then retired to our separate rooms for a nap. It was relaxing. It was even romantic.
When I was growing up, the notion of “vacation” was relentlessly predictable: the Fabulous Waikiki, year after year. It’s been an ever-changing kaleidoscope ever since my husband and I got together. Adding children to the mix sent us to destinations we’d never imagined, and even more so when we became a multigenerational family. My mother joining us means we continue to explore new terrain, both on vacation and at home. Where we will end up next summer is anybody’s guess — vacation planning as just another version of Bingo at the Waikiki.