Vacation, all I ever wanted…

In late August, after a summer spent looking (jealously, longingly) at other people’s glamorous vacation photos on Facebook, the Grekin-McKee family finally got to venture up north for our own annual vacation, up at Camp Michigania, near Pestoskey. (Yes, Joe and I had to take an entire day off of work while the kids were in daycare to prepare and pack – good Lord, does packing for a trip with young kids take forever – but we finally got on the road the following morning.)

For those unfamiliar, Michigania is a family camp (affiliated with the University of Michigan Alumni Association) that’s set up to provide fun, scheduled activities (or, in the case of babies and toddlers, cheerful supervision) for kids a few hours each day, thereby giving the parents a chance to do things they don’t often get to do. Like sleep.

This was our third year at Michigania, and in most ways, it was the best so far. We’d gone the first available week, in mid-June, in the past two years, when the weather was a bit rainy and chilly. This year, we grabbed at one of the last remaining available spots during the camp’s last week of operation, at the end of August. And other than a little rain on the afternoon of first full day, we had gorgeous weather throughout.

Things from the start were promising, since we were blissfully vomit-free (poor Lily had gotten carsick near the end of the trip each of the previous two years). Admittedly, I was watching her like a hawk – at one point, when she covered her mouth with her hand, I insisted we pull over, get her out of the car, and walk her around a bit – but we did it. Lily even said, when we got out of the car to check in, “I didn’t have any throw ups, Mommy! Just burps.” Indeed.

Neve, when she wasn’t sleeping, was a bit challenging. Understandably, she got restless. And though we packed her a bag of new little things to play with – our little car trip tradition at this point – she wasn’t that interested. Lily happily had her own personal movie marathon via the car’s DVD player, but I’ve been trying to keep Neve away from screens, just like we did with Lily as a baby, until she’s two. Besides, even the little exposure she’s had, when Lily’s watching her allotted half hour of “Super Why” or “Sesame Street,” Neve just isn’t old enough to be interested. So I tried to sing songs, play peek-a-boo, read her favorite books – but frankly, between being on vomit watch and trying to amuse a 14 month old, I felt exhausted, stressed and wholly spent by the time we drove down Michigania’s long, winding driveway. (It helped that Joe switched with me for the last leg of the trip. I thought my neck might be permanently pinched from wrenching it to look from the passenger front seat to the back seat.)

And while I temporarily mourned the loss of Lily’s afternoon nap this past year, her maturation came in handy during vacation. For in the middle of each afternoon, her group of 3 and 4 year olds went to the dining hall to hail the elusive, seemingly perpetually napping Cookie Man, like so:

(Lily’s the loud one in the pink hat, wearing the shirt she’d tie-dyed herself the day before.) Last year, after this daily ritual, we had to take Lily back to the cabin and try to persuade her to take a nap, which was often a battle of wills made all the worse by the fact that she was, of course, exhausted. But this year, no nap, no battles. Huzzah.

My week was spent logging a LOT of hours on our cabin’s porch, in the adirondack chairs, reading The New York Times and a book (Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” for a book group I just joined) that demanded a level of focus I couldn’t normally achieve in my regular life. I got a massage. I played with the kids on the beach. I went running with Joe a few times. I drank wine and played board games with friends in the evenings. I attended a couple of yoga classes. And on our last day, Joe and I did a high ropes course that challenged and exhilarated me.

Meals were utterly chaotic for us, of course. Neve seemed fairly ravenous upon arrival, and she’d quickly finish what we got for her, while our food often took a little longer to get/prepare, so she’d quickly be done and become anxious to get down from the high chair and push herself into and out of the dining hall by way of the screen doors (it was like this crazy new superpower to her – “I CAN OPEN DOORS!!”) or go down lots and lots of steps. Meanwhile, Lily would decide she didn’t like what she had, so she wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – or she’d need more to drink, and she isn’t tall enough to reach the dispenser – which again delayed me and/or Joe from mechanically gulping down what was on our own tray. (The camp’s food was quite good, but Joe and I always had to be so focused on eating as a sheer means to an end on these occasions that it was hard to enjoy, or even really “taste,” it all.)

Neve was generally her cooperative, sweet little self all week – we experienced none of the “Where the hell am I sleeping?!” rage that we experienced with Lily during her first night at Michigania a few years back; and with the exception of one night, when she had been sound asleep and Lily (and “mostly innocent” bystander and fellow explorer Benjamin, the 6 year old son of our friends who were sharing the cabin with us) snuck into the room and shined a flashlight in poor Neve’s face (don’t ask), she maintained her usual sleep schedule.

Two of the most memorable moments of the vacation were Lily-centric. First, I was reminded that as a parent, you often have to sweat the small stuff. And that’s kind of an annoying reality.

One evening, Lily had been playing in the small park by our cabin, and when it was time to come in, she started walking, pulling the hairband from her braid and toss it on the ground. Oy.

So first, I had to stop her and do the whole, “We don’t throw trash or anything else on the ground, we respect our environment, yadda yadda yadda” spiel in a serious, look-at-me-when-I’m-talking-to-you-this-is-important voice. And neither she nor I can find the hairband in the grass, since it’s growing dark, so we give up and head to the cabin. But she knows I’m still unhappy with what she did.

Once on the porch, Lily seizes upon a skinnier, larger black hairband on the table and says, “Oh, here’s my hairband. See, Mom?”

Oh, boy. Now we’re tackling lying. Crap.

I crouch down and in a quiet, dead-serious tone, I talk her through the whole thing. That I’d watched her toss the band from her hair onto the ground. That we hadn’t found it when we looked. That I’m not stupid. That she just came upon this other one on the table and lied about it because she didn’t want me to be angry anymore. But the thing is, I’m much more angry that she was trying to lie about it than if she’d just let it go.

She finally confessed that she knew the hairband wasn’t the one that had been in her hair, and she apologized; I told her I appreciated her finally telling me the truth, but because she lied, she couldn’t have ice cream the next day (soft serve’s available in the dining hall at every lunch and dinner). Lily nodded, and we moved on with our evening. Oof.

I hate these moments, because I feel absolutely ridiculous for making a huge deal over something as trivial as a hairband – especially when there were 50 more of them just sitting on the bathroom shelf. But then, 4 year olds don’t generally spray paint graffiti on buildings or steal wallets. They do thoughtless little things like tossing whatever they have in their hand on the ground and, later, trying to cover their butts by lying about it. So as a parent, I understand the necessity of nipping things in the bud early; I just find my rational, pragmatic self mentally reeling while having intense discussions about a five cent, black, stretchy hairband. Some part of me, throughout the whole thing, is thinking, “I can’t believe I’m having this intense of a discussion about a hairband.” But I realize that I have to. It’s part of the job, albeit a less enjoyable part.

The other very memorable moment from vacation happened during one of our chaotic family dinners. Lily was done eating, but the rest of us weren’t, and Lily asked to go outside the dining hall to play with a friend. Joe and I exchanged glances and said, “Sure.” But minutes later, I saw the boy she said she wanted to play with in the hall. So I went to find Lily outside, looking down the steep hill (where kids love to roll) but not seeing her long blond hair anywhere. I traversed the area carefully a few times, tried not to panic. She felt wholly comfortable at the camp, and she’s a social, adventurous girl; but I also felt like she wouldn’t just go out into the water, either. So I got stuck.

A friend from our cabin offered to go back and see if Lily had gone there; Joe walked along the beach looking for her; another friend checked various parts of the dining hall; and I kept my eyes peeled on the lawn area, holding Neve, trying to breathe. (In quick, immediate flashes, I imagined never seeing Lily again, and the grief I’d permanently carry, and I just froze in fear.)

Within a couple of minutes, the friend looking in the dining hall called out, “We found her!” and there Lily stood, completely unaware that she’d stopped my heart cold. Turns out that she and a little boy in her group wandered toward a cabin by the beach and saw a man on the porch. She and the boy approached and talked with him, but he quickly guided them back, realizing that they were probably going to be missed.

Indeed. And in the moment I didn’t – still don’t – know how to handle it. My friend took Neve into her arms, so I could have a minute with Lily; but I just stood there, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to explain to Lily why what she did was wrong.

This is a struggle I’ve been dealing with a lot. I know I should be strenuously, repeatedly harping on the idea of not talking to strangers. But to be honest, one of my favorite things about Lily is her force-of-nature personality. When we’re in a restaurant, she approaches various people and engages them in conversation, expressing curiosity and interest. She’s a charming kid, and I’m endeared by her fearlessness and openness.

And yet.

I simultaneously realize that the down-side to this openness is that Lily would be all the more vulnerable, should she find herself alone. I like to tell myself that she’s never alone – but I need to convey to her that she needs to be careful, too.

Right then, though, I just dumbly ate her up with my eyes, told her I’d been worried, hugged her, and took her hand to walk back to the cabin. I tried to absorb her presence, re-align my sense of the future to something more normal.

But those few minutes will haunt me for a while to come, I know.

A more uplifting, hysterical vacation memory involves Lily and Neve riding in a double stroller borrowed from kids’ camp. One time, as I pushed them toward our cabin, Lily said of one of her new friends, “Sam gave me the eye.” I didn’t think she’d been introduced to this particular colloquialism, so I said, “What do you mean by that, sweetie?” Suddenly, from beneath the stroller canopy, Lily’s hand appeared, holding a plastic googly eye. Oh, I thought. He gave you THAT eye.

And lastly, one of the things we struggled with, inevitably, was Neve’s midday nap. On a couple of days, she fell asleep at the dining hall during lunch, so we finally decided that one of us would put her down at the cabin and stay with her while the other would go to lunch, bringing back a to-go box. Well, of course, the day we tried this plan, she was wide awake and uninterested in a nap; but we did use this strategy later in the week.

All of which is to say, in parenting, as in any other challenging pursuit, you’re tempted to try and be too clever by half. Planning doesn’t really work in this realm. You have to read situations as they arise day-by-day, and respond accordingly. Yes, this means you always have to be on your toes; but it also means you have to be rooted in the present – and given all the distractions of our hyperconnected world, this is something I come to appreciate more and more.

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