Have stuff, will travel

June 27,2008
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.

On Saturday we're escaping to the beach for a quick, overnight stay at our favorite tiny, unpretentious (read: bare bones) motel. This motel could be The Ritz, as far as the kids are concerned, even if Scott and I have been around enough to know the difference. For my kids, there is something magical about spending the night away from home, all crammed into one room, in a place where the soaps come in little wrappers, and if you wake up in the middle of the night with a panic attack--hey!--there's your mom and dad an arm's reach away!

Scott and I will watch TV at night with the closed-captioning on, while the kids sleep. We'll eat lunch at our favorite pizza shop--the place that makes huge slices of New York pizza, and take our bagels and coffee to the beach on Sunday morning, where we'll sit and watch the ghost crabs scurry about, and the gulls swoop, and those early morning joggers race by into the clear air.

I can't wait.

I even enjoyed shopping for the beach yesterday. Not for swimsuits and such, but for the basic supplies: extra sunscreen, hand wipes for wiping off those sandy hands before eating, and the sticky ones afterwards (the ones that attract sand like magnets and tempt even four-year-olds to lick them off, with disastrous results), cereal bars for staving off lunch snacking, extra fruit, orange juice boxes for the hotel room (circumventing the temptation to pop some quarters into the motel vending machine for Sprites), and lots of crunchy snacks to occupy antsy kids during motel room downtime.

Back home I happily washed our Neat Sheet (don't you love those?) and dug out our striped beach bag, pails and shovels, and assorted sand toys. As I began the process of laundry, sorting, and packing for really what was going to amount to only some 36 hours away from home, I thought about how ironic it is that we, a family who likes to travel light, always seem to end up packing enough for a two-month stay. We like adventures, we like to "rough it" when we travel, we like to be minimalist packers (and, I suppose, by some families' standards, we are). But as I surveyed the growing pile of stuff waiting by the front door, I decided to sort through it one more time to decide if we really and truly needed it.

Here's what we currently have ready to go into the van:

Four suitcases, various sizes, one for each. If your mother-in-law is kind enough to provide the kids with their own monogrammed bags, then of course they must be brought out and used for each and every trip, even if it makes sense sometimes to cram everything into one large duffel bag.

L.'s entire stuffed animal collection and carry-along Playmobil suitcase filled with impossibly small knight parts, which will, of course, end up misplaced in the motel room within two minutes of arrival.

T.'s three favorite Care Bears, an Angelina Ballerina doll, and, of course, her stuffed dolphin and whale--because we're going to the beach. Dolphin and Whale will sit under the umbrella with us, on the off-chance their cousins come by and want to wave hello from the breakers.

Diego potty seat for motel potty. Holding a tiny person over a large potty at 7:00 a.m. while they read a book and poop is just no fun.

Beach chairs--two large and two child-size. Definitely a must-bring. Who likes to sit on a sandy towel all day long? Sitting on a chair gives the parents the ability to oversee sandcastle building and shell-collecting from the comfort of a (relatively) sand-free perch. And if you don't bring a beach chair for the kids, you can guarantee they will clamber onto your lap to sit, bringing with them piles of wet and sticky sand, and your chair will never be the same again for the rest of the day.

Umbrella. Not much to say there--but going to the beach without shade is insanity, even without small children. When we were in Greece two years ago and couldn't cart an umbrella everywhere, we managed to erect many impromptu shades by borrowing a large sheet from the hotel room before we set off, and stretching it out between sticks and rocks. It was tricky, but our sheet tents always were a huge hit with the kids--and with other people's kids, too.

Portable kid's potty. This might seem unnecessary, but let me explain. Many beaches don't have toilets nearby, and when a four-year-old has to go, she really has to go. Right away. We always park about a block from the beach, and leave the potty chair in the back of the van. This way, when an emergency hits, we can rush T. to the back of the van, let her take care of business, rinse out the seat  into the curb, and be back to the beach in about ten minutes flat. (Note: this only works for one kind of potty emergency--you know the kind. For the other one, you might need to be a little more creative.)

When tomorrow comes, I know all of this will end up in the van with us, despite our best efforts--and then some. Much of it may never make it out of the van at the other end, but still we'll tote it along, on the off chance that it will be needed--we're terrified of jinxing ourselves should we decide, at the eleventh hour, to leave just one of L.'s stuffies behind, or turn our backs on the squishy potty seat, or the extra sippy cup. I think I've realized that we parents cart all this stuff around for ourselves, mainly, not for our own kids. We fear the unexpected--the terrible prospect of being unprepared that haunts us all. Some day we'll miss all this flotsam we carry with us wherever we go, just as we'll miss the sight of our kids, buckets swinging from their hands, as they tumble over the sand dunes, all arms and legs and happy shouts.