Perfectly Imperfect Family Vacations – Wisconsin
I spent 13 months on the road with a one-year-old, so I’ve got lots of stories about making lemonade from lemons. One that stands out in particular comes from smack-dab in the middle of our traveling – we had six months under our belt and another seven in front of us. And my son Tommy and and I were so sick I was doubting whether I wanted to continue with our trip:An unfamiliar bed, one of many, this one in my sister-in-law’s house in Wisconsin. It was so deeply dark as to seem like midnight, but when I rolled over and looked at the clock, it said 6:15. Tommy was hollering from his crib in the bedroom across the hallway. I squeezed my eyes shut; I’d stayed up too late watching reruns of Cheers. Tommy had the same terrible cough I did, but this was not enough to arouse my sympathy. My chest was tight, my head ached, and I had just drifted off to sleep after lying awake for two hours.Despite my best efforts to ignore him, Tommy persisted. I went into his room and laid my hand on his head briefly before trying to stuff a binky in his mouth. His lips refused to do anything but open up and cry and I could sense that his eyes were wide in the pitch black. I went back into my bedroom to get dressed, but when Matt volunteered to get up, I gratefully accepted as I crawled back into bed.A few moments later I heard my husband Matt say, “Mara, Tommy threw up.” I went in to find Matt standing in the glare of the overhead light, holding a now-quiet Tommy. There was a sizeable pile of vomit in the crib, sitting neatly next to the blanket as if he had done his best not to make a mess. He smiled sweetly at me from Matt’s arms – he hadn’t even soiled his pajamas.“How could I not have noticed this when I came in here before?” I moaned, “What’s the matter with me?”“Yes, how could you not have heard your child puking his guts out?” Matt said, “And then ignore the mess in his crib? Didn’t you smell it? What kind of mother are you?”Or this is what I heard Matt say. What he actually said was something innocent and completely reasonable, such as, “I wonder why we didn’t hear him retching.”I was on a short fuse; my relish for travel, which had sustained me through the past five months had vanished somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean during our 17-hour return from Italy. Instantly furious with Matt, I grabbed Tommy and took him downstairs, where he sat on my lap at the kitchen table and cheerfully ate a banana as I stewed.Moments later Matt appeared. Surveying Tommy and me he said carefully, “I was wondering, not in an ‘I-hate-Mara’ way or an ‘I-wanna-get-in-a-fight’ way what had caused Tommy to puke.” He all but threw up his hands as if to ward off blows. Chastened by his tone, I apologized. Looking at Tommy’s placid face, we agreed it was probably nothing more serious than the snot from his cold getting into his stomach. As penance, I trudged off to get Tommy’s bedding.It was obvious to me as I stood over Tommy’s crib sheet with the Spray ‘n Wash bottle that I should immediately turn in my mothering license, go back to Delaware, and never take Tommy anywhere again. But when I went downstairs, Matt’s nephew Mitch was sitting at the table. He asked me if I was ready to ride on the Santa Train.That’s right. In all my misery and scrubbing of barf, I’d forgotten all about the fact that my sister-in-law Becky had bought tickets for a train ride at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. Mitch, Becky’s husband Tim, and his daughter Lindsay would be joining us.Several hours later, I found myself sitting in a coach car full of shining wood and brass fixtures listening to the Baraboo High School girl’s choir sing Silent Night. My pleasure came largely from the fact that Tommy simply couldn’t believe that we were riding on what he called a “shoo-shoo,” that there were other shoo-shoos in the yard, and that all of us were there enjoying it with him. “Wow!” he cried each time the whistle blew. Then he would point excitedly at a muddy cow pasture or a level crossing, before abandoning Matt’s lap and finding Mitch or Lindsay. He had to make sure they weren’t missing one frozen piece of prairie grass.Watching the pleasure on Tommy’s face, I realized that I had rarely in my life felt so proud and so fully in the moment. To have a child capable of such attention and enthusiasm was my dream. I had been worried that at an hour, the ride would be too long for him, but he was happy the entire time. And looking at the smiling faces of Matt’s family, all of them as pleased as I was, I realized how many of these small but significant moments I could mark in Tommy’s development not just by how old he was, but by where we were.Never would I wonder to myself when he started walking, because I would see him running across the playground in Boston. I knew that he climbed stairs for the first time by himself in London and ate ice cream out of his own little cup in Florence. And here he was, on the Santa train in North Freedom, singing “Jingle Bells” lustily and almost on key. There was no need to measure out Tommy’s life with coffee spoons. Already, at 19 months, we had a rich backdrop for each small milestone, a specific location to attach to each change. Life on the road with a toddler wasn’t always fun or even interesting. But it was distinct. It was memorable. It was totally worth it, in all its imperfect glory.