Parade of trips

June 15,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

We're getting things ready this week for a summer trip. As always, anytime we do this, sorting clothes, organizing what we'll bring, cleaning the house ahead of time in anticipation of our return (I've learned that it's extra anticlimactic to return home after a vacation to a dirty, messy house), all this activity conjures up past holiday trips. I pause, mid-mop, or while folding clothes and bathing suits into our suitcases, and a parade of trips marches across my memory.

When L. was thirteen months old we took him all the way across the Atlantic to Greece, where my grandparents lived.  We did this the same summer we relocated from New York to North Carolina, thinking perhaps that since we were experiencing major upheaval anyway we might as well throw in a transatlantic plane trip as well.  I learned quickly that you can plan extensively for such a trip; load your diaper bag with clothes, toys, treats, and every possible distraction, and still suffer miserably on the flight.  While I had Scott with me for the flight to Greece, I took the flight back solo--flew from Athens to Berlin and from Berlin to Dulles, and then Dulles to our local airport in North Carolina--all by myself.  I remember little about the trip, except that little TV monitor in the back of my seat charting the painfully slow progress of a cartoon plane across the Atlantic while L. fussed and cried and climbed over my head in non-stop attempts to reach the enticing light switch and fan buttons. I remember also that L. slept all of one hour the entire time.  I remember an evil flight attendant lady, and a handful of unsympathetic, grumpy passengers, and a diaper blowout right when the dinner carts were brought out, effectively blockading me from the lavatory for a solid 40 minutes. When I recount that tale to other parents they do the shuddering thing and back away, hands out, as if trying to ward off evil spirits.  

I have other nightmare travel tales, too.  Two years ago we made the trip to Greece again, this time with both kids.  T. was, at the time, only two, and did admirably on the leg over the Atlantic.  I did learn-quickly too, that even if you have one child who has been potty trained for a good two years at that point, it's still a good idea to bring a pair of underwear and pants with you in your carry-on bag because your other child, the one in diapers, will not need a single change of clothes the entire time but your almost-six-year old will fall asleep for 5 minutes and promptly wet his pants. There was vomit (lots of it) in New York's Kennedy airport on the return trip home (when will I learn to pack extra clothes for myself?), and a delayed flight, and lost bags but, in the end, we made it home and the next morning we woke up and the bad parts seemed funny, and started fading away, just as the smell of the warm Mediterranean sand and the hot Greek sun, and the fragrant mountain oregano began to fade away from the insides of our well-worn suitcases.

We almost didn't go to Greece the summer before my grandmother died; daunted by memories of how difficult travel had been with one child, we almost put it off until the next summer.  But we pushed our anxieties aside and ignored friends who told us we were insane to pack up two small kids and head off to Greece for three weeks, no itineraries, no specific plans. What we didn't know then was that my grandmother had a brain tumor lurking silently inside of her; that if we hadn't gone then, she might never have met her two-year old great grand-daughter, or had a chance to see how L. had grown. The travel parts of the trip itself seem insignificant in hindsight; all our discomforts and the busy, hot airports, the jet lag and the moments of whining and exhaustion were like small bookends holding up what really mattered in-between: T.'s first sight of the Mediterranean, spread out like glass in the afternoon sun, L.'s wonder at a world so different from his own, and my grandmother, holding her arms out to my children--those children she loved so much for too short a time.