A Big Family Vacation

Big Family or Big Vacation?

by Kathy Coogan

Prompt words for this fictional anecdote: busy, children, evening, shower, curtain, pell-mell, frame, file, check.

And now the story...

If, and it's a big if, everyone cooperates this evening we will leave for vacation on schedule at 6:00 A.M. tomorrow. Our big family is a throw-back. There are five kids which seems just right to us. Busy but right. But in each of our kid’s classes, the only-children-category is gaining on us.

We do okay and this annual trip to South Carolina is a favorite of our big family. So much so that the older kids still want to go with us! That in itself is a feat of parenting. Of course they’d all like to bring a friend but we’ve held our ground that this is a Family Vacation. And since we go back to the same beach house every year, they expect to either see old friends or know that they’ll meet new ones.

Packing for this many people is a challenge. Instead of running around like turkeys with our heads cut off, crashing pell-mell into one another, yelling up the steps for so and so to throw down this or that, retracing our steps, and ultimately forgetting something essential like the blow dryer (for the girls) or the inflatable raft (for me), I have a time-frame with a system of checks and balances like the government, except mine works.

The children complain about my quasi-anal nature but when somebody wants the snorkel (LL Bean bag) or boogie board (under the beach towels in the trunk) or the Coppertone 30 (straw satchel), who they gonna call? We try to take everything that we’re going to need except perishables, down to salt and pepper and t.p. Sam’s Club at home is way cheaper than the Piggly Wiggly at the beach.

For the week before the trip, the dining room becomes Vacation Central. Instead of just being a pass-through from kitchen to family room or the place where I have taught five kids to fold laundry, it becomes a supply depot. If you want “it” to go with you on vacation,” it” better be in the dining room by the night before. Dad, our logistical expert, packs the van, and the old Suburu wagon, a prodigious feat, leaving no room for last minute inserts, except me and the kids.

Two of the older kids drive now and they follow like ducklings, always in sight of us, in Soobie-Doo with a lucky single sibling who doesn’t have to ride with Mom and Dad. This seat is a precious commodity that is bestowed in a game of chance. They actually draw straws for the privilege of riding with the big kids, a system that averts fights but not tears. “Aw, no fair,” Annie says, “she always gets to ride with them first.” And admittedly Jill is on a lucky streak.

But at the first pit stop, seats are traded and Annie gets to join the Fun Car as they call it, while Jill pouts and buckles in with Mom and Dad. The kids are so funny. They all eventually get a turn riding with Jen and Paul but that first spot is coveted more than any other. Only Ben prefers the arrival leg of the trip, instead of the departure. He confided to me that it’s much cooler to arrive at the beach with the big kids than with your parents. But he’s keeping that opinion from his sisters.

It’s a ten hour drive from home to beach now that all bladders are reliable and everybody knows to use the john every time we stop for gas. The first scent of the low country, the best smell on earth, always brings shouts of, “I smell it first. We’re almost there.” Pulling in that sandy driveway, with the sea pounding just past the clunky, wonderful house amid the dunes is a noisy event, with cheers, honking horns and slamming car doors. Pent-up energy from the long car ride gives way to a race to the beach.

Even Dad who likes to unpack immediately before his helpers disappear, strides across the dunes-bridge to take a deep breath of the sea air. You can almost see the curtain of work-pressure and city life falling away. I like to look back from the beach to the house, admiring the grand old girl who has withstood even Hugo. Sweaty and stiff from sitting for hours and sharing the driving, I covet a cold water shower in the outside stall with the blue sky and sun or moon above my head.

But first we settle in, putting our mark on the house, just vacated by another family the day before. The coolers are unpacked into the fridge. The coffee maker begins to drip Columbian to re-charge the parents’ batteries. Paul and Ben share a room; Jen, Annie and Jill share another; both rooms connect to the second-floor screened porch where the kids will sleep many nights. Fans are turned on, windows opened.

Finally with reminders for the big kids to watch the younger ones, and to not go far, quiet descends and I meet my husband in our room on the first floor where double doors stand wide open to the breeze. Screens catch the wanna-be flying intruders as the sky begins to suggest evening. We stand together and read each others’ thoughts about luck and grace.

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