My husband and I were recently inspired to pack ourselves, our eight kids, and 13,000 Capri Sun juice boxes into our twelve-passenger van and drive more than 1,500 miles to spend Christmas in south Florida.
It was epic — if by epic you mean a wildly memorable trip that was “so perfectly worth doing” but also “I am so glad it’s over with” all at once. For good or bad, nothing says “togetherness” quite like a long family road trip.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Before we left for this trip, I was a bit nervous. I recalled our trek to South Carolina a few summers ago. That was the legendary drive where I carefully packed goodies, distractions, and various forms of entertainment for the tantrum-prone children but neglected to do the same for my tantrum-prone self. The kids still refer to that as the trip where “Mama threw Papa’s clothes all over the hotel room.” And I still thank God that’s the worst they remember.
I broached the subject of potential conflicts with my husband shortly before we left. I explained my concern that the stress of travel with a gang of kids might have the power to turn our thoughts from “holiday” to “homicide” faster than you can say “traffic jam with a potty emergency in the back seat and a carsick kid in the front.”
I talked to the kids about the need for greater charity and patience while on the road as well. It is true that the close quarters of the interior of a vehicle, a hotel room, and a beach cottage, multiplied by many days, tend to highlight some of our more annoying personal habits. Like humming, kicking the seat, snoring, snapping gum, obsessively counting black pick-up trucks, cheating at the Alphabet Game, and singing the Sponge Bob Campfire Song until your voice grows hoarse. And that’s just one kid.
Together, we agreed that in the face of high stress levels, the best remedy would be space. We would take a break from each other’s presence if we needed to. Even if iPod earbuds were the only way to get that break.
It wasn’t until we had made it all the way to our tropical destination that I realized we hadn’t needed much of that space during the ride. We actually had a lot of fun getting there, and having talked about the potential for conflict had helped my own perspective a bit.
A few moments during the ride back, however, were a different story. Despite the fact that I know all of you are dying to hear about how very wrong my husband was about the best way to get from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, and how very unfairly he interpreted the motivations behind my astute travel tips, I won’t bother you with the details. Just know this: I was right and he was wrong. And if you want to hear his perspective, you’ll just have to read my husband’s column about our trip where he might share the story of how I lost the van keys and forced him to paw through a trash can in a 20-degree parking lot in Gettysburg. Except he hasn’t written one. Thank God.
Now that I can assess our return trip from the comfort of my own home, with my children sleeping soundly in their beds and my own typhoid-free bathroom just footsteps away, I can recognize that we had some laughs along the way.
Like the time my husband asked me for some fruit juice while he was driving. I pulled a bottle from our cooler, opened it, and handed it to him. He took a sip and nearly spat it onto the windshield. Turns out it was not just fruit juice but a rum punch he had packed for our day at the beach the previous afternoon. Here we were, responsible parents of eight children, swilling rum punch as we cruised the highway at 70 miles per hour.
And then there was the time that Google Maps, my husband, and I hatched a wild plan to avoid stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 95. We followed secret directions on back roads and chuckled with delight at our own cleverness until we saw the signs.
“Stop!” they ordered, and “No Trespassing!” they barked rudely. “No unauthorized vehicles,” one of them finally explained: “Airplane Runway.” We backed away slowly.
One of the highlights of our return trip was discovering a small, folded piece of paper in one of our hotel rooms. On the outside, in Gabrielle’s unmistakable seven-year-old handwriting, was the title “How My Family Is Weird.” On the inside was a list of family members’ names with varying numbers of stars next to them, presumably representative of one’s level of “weirdness.” The rest of us looked over the list and collectively determined that keeping a running tally of the weirdness levels of one’s own family members was pretty much the weirdest thing any of us could think of.
But weird or not weird, one idea that was cemented in all our minds during our epic trip was that, for better or for worse, we are family.
On our route home, when we stopped at a small parish in South Carolina to attend Sunday Mass, the priest spotted us afterward and wanted to say hello before we left. He didn’t know our names, so instead he called out, “Hey . . . family!” At that call, every one of us stopped in our tracks and turned toward him. We recognized ourselves in the word he used.
We might be weird, but we are family. And we thank God for the privilege.