Oh, Relatives. What Would We Do Without Them?
Every year, at Christmastime, my husband and I pack up our three kids and head north to the land of the grandparents–a magical place filled with Disney videos, all-chocolate-pudding meals, and presents with lots of movable, breakable parts.
These gifts come in boxes wrapped in so many layers of stiff, pricey paper, you practically need a blowtorch and a chisel to open them. But this wondrous country, which happens to lie, geographically speaking, in Washington, DC, and in Philadelphia, is only the destination. Getting there, from our home in Baton Rouge, LA, is another story.
The fun generally begins in mid-December. Last year, I remember, my mother-in-law called one Sunday night and said:
“Have you packed yet?”
“No,” I said.
“Don’t you think you ought to at least be thinking about it?” she said.
“Er,” I said, because in fact, all I had been thinking about, other than whether it was time to face the depressing troth and color over my gray hair, was our three kids’ three different holiday party schedules, and whether I was supposed to make chocolate cupcakes with red frosting or vanilla cupcakes with green frosting.
Then school let out, and the kids were home, and we had only four days left before our trip. That’s when the panic really set in.
Fortunately, my kids, being home and bored out of their minds, were eager to “help.” They “helped” me wrap the eight-katrillion Christmas and Hanukkah presents, and “packed” for themselves by taking all the things that had once been folded and stacked more or less neatly inside their bureau drawers out of their bureau drawers and stuffing them into grocery bags. Meanwhile, my husband–who was becoming increasingly dazed at the prospect of having to choose which of his sweaters to pack for our trip north–spent more and more time staring into the refrigerator, muttering, “What do I want to eat?”
On the eve of our departure, my husband returned from his office, where he’d been “cleaning up his desk,” and said: “Have you packed a snack bag?”
“No,” I said.
“Don’t you think you Should?” he said.
The truth was, I hadn’t packed anything yet because I was still doing laundry. “What’s the big deal?” my husband said, when he noticed that I was glaring at him. Then, when I didn’t answer, he said: “What’s for dinner? I’m hungry.”
Around eleven o’clock–well after the kids were asleep, and while my husband was downstairs staring into our snack cupboard, intoning, “Do I want a cookie or a pretzel?”–I started packing. I’ll mention just a few of the things the kids begged me not to forget (in addition to their clothes, that is). For 9-year-old Sam: volumes six through nine of the Animorphs series, his Walkman and classical music tapes, Mr. Blanket, his Hebrew workbook, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For 5-year-old Jonathan: his folder of “homework” from nursery school, his harmonica, his Doggie, his new slippers that he got from Aunt Binky, his plastic Barney watch, his marking pens, and his favorite paintbrush. For Rosie, his twin: Baby (her doll), New Baby (another doll), her “diamond” rings, her Polly in Paris Polly Pocket set, her pink and purple barrettes, her red and her pink tights, her “good” pocketbook, her “everyday” pocketbook, and Beatrix Potter’s A Treasury of Bunny Stories.
We left the next morning at 8:00 A.M. The house was locked, I’d checked and rechecked the stove burners and light switches about a hundred times, and the airplane tickets were in my handbag. In short, everything was going off without a hitch until we were actually airborne and began to hit those little “rough air” bumps that completely freak me out and instantly mm me into a very religious person. The plane began jumping up and down just as we’d been served our snacks, and Rosie–who was sitting on one side of me–spilled Coke all over my shirt, and started wailing because she wanted more.
During the layover in Mobile, AL, I rinsed out my wet shirt and dried it under the hand drier in the ladies’ room. I also bought a gossip magazine filled with pictures of women who are far better looking and far richer than I am. Then we got back on the plane, where the kids–ravenous from having been deprived of food for so long–polished off the contents of the snack bag I’d packed that morning, complaining the whole time about why I’d brought along so much fruit when, as everyone knows, Chee-tos taste better. On the next leg of the journey, things went smoothly–so smoothly, in fact, that my husband managed to get a nap in, because, as he explained, he was worn out from all that last-minute packing.
But then we hit layover No. 2: the Atlanta airport. For those who have never been there, the Atlanta airport is a very high-tech, large place. There’s even an underground mil system to take you from one terminal to the next. And that’s where we got into a little trouble: Jonathan decided to get on this “subway” without us. The doors closed; the train lurched forward. Then–as I stood there screaming–it stopped, the doors opened, and Jonathan, a huge grin on his face, stepped out. “That was cool!” Sam said.
My heart was pounding and my armpits had sprouted cascades of sweat, but hey. It was by now a full three minutes past noon–a good time, I thought, for a cocktail. And here I must report that the vodka and tonic I had on the flight from Atlanta to Washington, DC, not only helped calm my racing nerves, but also prevented me from losing it when the really mean bald man sitting in front of us told me to keep my kids quiet, he was trying to work. It also helped me stay calm when the children got into a giant screaming fight over who should get the red marking pen and who should get the blue one.
When we got to my mom and dad’s house, Mom took one look at me and said: “Jennifer, don’t you think it’s time to start coveting your gray? You look awful.”
Well, yes, maybe at that moment I did. But at least we’d arrived safely, if a little wrinkled. And here’s the good part: We stayed at my mom and dad’s–place with a well-functioning laundry room, plenty of hot water, and clean sheets–for four full days, until we packed up again and hit the road, this time in a rented Jeep.
By now, the kids had developed nasty colds; they were spewing germs and snot all over the place. But off we went, up 1-95 toward Philly, accompanied by the dulcet sounds of Big Bird singing “Just One Me,” interspersed with Sam exclaiming, “The twins just farted,” and Rosie and Jonathan yelling, “Did not!” My husband and I–seasoned parents, after all–did our utmost to ignore them. We were able to do so all the way to the entrance to the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, when we got stuck in traffic, and when, with impeccable timing, Rosie announced that she had to go to the bathroom.
We were surrounded on all sides by giant four-wheel-drive vehicles, none of them moving real quickly. “I have to make wee-wee,” she kept screaming. Her face turned red, and she began to cry. “I really mean it!”
It wasn’t that I didn’t sympathize–who among us hasn’t been in the same predicament?–but really, there wasn’t anything I could do at that moment to alleviate her discomfort. And it didn’t help when Sam started saying, over and over, “Mom, she’s driving me crazy!” Eventually, we found ourselves on the other side of the tunnel, where my husband pulled the Jeep over to the side of the interstate, so Rosie could go.
Forty minutes later, Jonathan had to go. Again, my husband pulled over, and–as cars shot past us–Jonathan made his mark.
Twenty minutes later, this time as we crossed into Delaware, Sam announced that it was his turn. Just to be sure we wouldn’t have to make a fourth stop, my husband once again pulled over, and all three of them got out and emptied their bladders.
“What took you so long to get here?” my mother-in-law asked as we dragged all our junk into her apartment. By now–having had Hanukkah at my mom and dad’s–we’d acquired a few additional objects, such as Jonathan’s new talking robot with blinking eyes and a voice that reminded me of my high school chemistry teacher’s. Even now, the thing was chattering away, saying, “Choose a matching letter. Terrific! Choose a matching letter! Try again! Try again! Try again!”
No, it wasn’t what I’d envisioned years ago, when my husband and I, madly in love and utterly unfamiliar with baby-rash products, started talking about getting married and having children of our own. But how could I have known, back when I could pack for a romantic weekend in about ten seconds, that one day, “traveling” would mean getting to a place where I could at least do laundry?
“Don’t you think you should buy yourself a decent set of luggage?” my mother-in-law said as I was rooting around in our suitcases, looking for Jonathan’s Doggie. “That stuff you have looks like something a bag lady would drag around.”
Except for a few minor incidents, like when Jonathan’s cold turned into an ear infection on New Year’s Eve and every pediatrician I called was in the islands for the week, or when Sam went down to the lobby to get his grandmother’s mail and then forgot which floor she lived on, the rest of our vacation was a success. The kids ate loads of chocolate pudding, watched far too much TV, and got enough hugs and kisses to last at least a year. And then we were back in Baton Rouge. As I was sorting through the mail that had come in our absence, the kids came running down the stairs.
“We’ve been talking,” Sam said. “And we want to ask you something.”