Vacation parenting: It’s a combat zone

Our summer vacation was another trip East to visit and stay with very patient and accepting family members.

In order to relieve the crush of the Bailey family’s daily activity and energy level, we planned several day trips and one overnight jaunt up to Niagara Falls in order to relieve our patient hosts of, well – us.Image

There we were motoring along, taking our time, stopping where it seemed interesting to stop. The air was cool. The road was pleasantly winding and the four of us were happy.

As we passed lush, fragrant fields of ripening grapes in upstate New York, I was contemplating our well-behaved Prima and Secondo. At that moment giggling over a game they were playing quietly and peacefully in the backseat. I was reveling in the fact that, all things considered, they were good, respectful children. My hand doing dolphin dives out the window, I took a moment to mentally pat Mr. Bailey and me on the back for our dedication to our role as parents.

Several moments later, the lull of the summer air making us dozy and comfortable, sharing sideways smiles, we listened as our girls, forgetting our presence and our ability to hear conversations going on two feet behind us in a closed space, began chatting amiably with one another.Image

The conversation went very nearly like this:

Prima: I kind of get upset sometimes because I never get to do what I want to do.

[This, of course, is an abject lie. We sometimes say our entire lives are exactly what our children want to do.]

Secondo: Well, Prima, you know, that’s easy. Do you know what I do?

[Mr. Bailey and I exchange dubious glances.]

Prima (genuinely stymied): What?

Secondo: All you have to do to get something you want is to start crying. That’s what I do. And it always works. I start crying and my parents give me exactly what I want.

[Mr. Bailey and I, slightly aghast, exchange discouraged shakes of the head.]

Prima: (sounding uncertain) Oh.

 

Now, would my guard have not been so precipitously low at that moment, I would have argued Secondo’s point until blue. I would have pointed out our use of time out. I would have extolled our willingness to correct bad manners and to insist on things like good eye contact and apologies. I would have discussed our dedication to empowering our children to be self-reliant problem solvers.

But at that moment, we were on vacation. Similar to a warzone, vacation parenting was in full effect. In vacation parenting combat zones, we tend to go with a we-will-give-you-what-you-want-if-you-will-please-stop-your-continuous-whining/crying-before-we-get-kicked-out-of-this-hotel/house/restaurant/pool/airplane-for-beating-our-children approach, regardless of the cost to us as parents.

Therefore, I could not argue. I could only acknowledge, grit my teeth, narrow my eyes, and realize our darling Secondo had us, sagely, over a barrel. And, worse still, she knew it.

Later on as Mr. Bailey and I laughed a little and fretted a lot about all the battles to come with Secondo, I recalibrated. No, I don’t have perfect kids. That is clear. But they have gumption, they have spunk and they are smart.

For that I am grateful. And also, worried.Image

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The Baileys become, Those People

Before you have kids you think, “I will never be Those People.”

Those People are the ones the childless you observe “allowing” their children to misbehave in public, coddling their children with bribes (“If you’re good while we shop, Mommy will let you have M&Ms.”) and forcing their screaming children to do something they clearly do not want to do – like ride a semi-scary amusement park ride.

Not too long ago, Mr. Bailey and I became Those People. Full disclosure: I’m sure this isn’t our first foray, but it is the most egregious in recent memory.

Instead of staying home over Thanksgiving holiday we uncharacteristically decided to visit the most popular amusement park in theUnited States. We did this purely out of a desire to avoid the sadness of my first major holiday without my Mom. We had good reasons.

That’s what justified spending more than we should have on park tickets, hotel and food; the majority of the cost lying in the park-highway-robbery-tickets.

So when some of the most amusing of the amusements enticed, we tried to casually saunter into the line despite Prima’s mild protests. As we wove through the cavern-like line at a pleasingly brisk pace, Prima’s protests grew more urgent. Secondo, suddenly tuning into her kid counterpart’s anxiety, also began to chirp.

Mr. Bailey and I tried strategy No. 2 at that point: cajoling. We assured Prima it would be fun, we pointed out the other children in line, much younger than her, who looked excited: we mentioned out how smiley people were as they exited.

No dice. Prima’s protests became more urgent. Her already dominating brown eyes grew larger with fear as we approached the end of the wait to board. We could see dug heels lurking in Secondo’s eyes. (Prima’s dug heels are usually negotiable, Secondo’s are not. Ever.)

Rounding the last bend, we tried strategy No. 3: ignoring. Mr. Bailey and I talked about how excited we were, how this was our most favorite ride ever, how we were never ever scared on the ride. We expected Prima to quiet down and listen intently to what we said. Instead, she squared her jaw and began chatting, “no, no, no, no!”

Finally, as we neared the ride loading gate, we became Those People. As the park attendees eyed us sadly, and with the triple-digit cost of park tickets in mind, I took a firm hold of Prima’s wrists, and said, “Prima, come ON! Stop-shouting-It’ll-be-fun-I-promise-I’ll-buy-you-a-souvenir-if-you-do-it!” As she simultaneously shouted, “No-Mommy-no-Mommy-I-don’t-want-to-Mommy-please-no-please-no!” Mr. Bailey scooped up Secondo in the same moment this occurred, placed her in the ride and sat down with her.

Suddenly, I looked up to at least a dozen eyes on me as I attempted to physically push my terrified 8-year-old daughter into an amusement park ride. For the sake of – ahem – fun, and, let’s be honest, cost justification, and selfishness. Even Secondo looked at me, shocked.

It was the shock that got me.

“Let’s go,” I murmur, ashamed.

A kindly attendant gestured to her right.  “You can walk over this bridge to exit the ride.”

Mr. Bailey and Secondo unbuckled and hurriedly joined us for a whole new walk of shame.

It took several moments for the mortification to slough off me.

When it did, I saw the world in a new light: through the eyes of Those People. 

The last sunset of 2011

Mr. Bailey just came in from running to the gas station for Mrs. Bailey’s tonic water to tell us there is a beautiful sunset.

This

The year sunsets as Mr. and Mrs. Bailey walk in the rose-colored twilight of 2011. Image by Modern Mary

being the last day of the year, the idea comes upon me to appreciate it.

“Shall we go take a look at it, then? The last sunset of 2011!” I say with urgency, glancing to the window as the hues in the sky seemed to fade before my eyes.

We hurriedly grab coats, slip in shoes, leash our dog and shuffle out the door.

The mountain sky is full of pillow-y ribbons of pink, fuchsia, orange, backlit with a deep blue of a waning day.

We walk into the cold, into the blue. Take photographs.

I photograph the girls, Mr. Bailey, then feel the need to be a part of this documentation. I turn the camera on me and point to the sky.

Mr. Bailey tells us we need to see the peak in this sunset light. We walk out further than I thought we’d go.

As we walk, I look at the photo I’ve taken. Half of my face occupies the bottom quarter of the image, along with my finger, pointing up. The foreground is my Mother’s ring, aimed miraculously at the rising moon. Somehow I feel, in this moment, the veil thinning and my Mother’s warmth, reaching.

Image by Modern Mary

Prima walks with a notebook in hand and writes a spontaneous poem. Secondo shivers in the cold, having come outside in only short sleeves and borrowed slippers.

Mr. Bailey walks ahead of his girls with our dog pulling at the leash, his stylish but worn brown corduroy jacket covering his strong broad shoulders, which have held so much of our sorrow, our fear, our grief this year. I radiate gratitude for his strength.

Secondo shivers as we walk; I realize I am warm and strip off my coat and put her little arms into the long, black sleeves. She smiles and says, “warm.”

We turn for home. I hold each of the girls – Prima, arm draped across her shoulder, and tell her she was a blessing to me this year, that she will always be a blessing in my life, just by being her. I pick up Secondo in my puffy black coat, she wraps her legs around my waist. I’m grateful she’s still little enough to hold like this. I whisper into her wild, curly hair, she has been a blessing to me this year. “I love you.” She says it simply, a statement, in return.

We head for home. In the pinks and blues surrounding I want to kiss my mother, not just her face, but her spirit.

“Is she here?” I ask aloud, “Does she see us now?”

“We love you!” I call out, blowing a double-handed kiss to the setting sun.

Without breaking stride, I wipe tears away, and move swiftly toward the entry to our corner of warmth and light in this world, into the light, and let the door shut on the year my mother died.

Mary ama dormire (Modern Mary loves to sleep)

Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love to sleep.

Whether waking or sleeping, Modern Mary makes sleep a priority. Postcard image by Trish Grantham

It might be in my genes. My father has always been a notorious sleeper. Give him 5 minutes in a comfortable chair, regardless of the hour, and he will give you a nap.

I’m not so much the napping type as I am the sleep-for-10-hours-at-a-time type. I often tell Mr. Bailey, “You know what I’d like to do? Sleep for two weeks.”

In times of stress, I like to head to bed around 9:30 and sleep, preferably, until 8 or 9 a.m.

If you’re a sleeper like me, you know dreams sometimes play a role in the experience.

Since my mom died, my dreams have become rich, offbeat and resonant parts of my nighttime routine.

It seems every suggestion or fear is immediately processed into my subconscious and put into the dream queue.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the absence of constant conversations with my siblings, the important conferring, the unity of our family as we fought cancer collectively. I am in the midst of deciphering what our family will be like now that my mother, the spoke, the emotional home of our unit, is gone.

In my midnight dreams, my three brothers and I are in my grandmother’s old house, together, sharing memories, looking around the dining room, theFloridaroom, laughing, when suddenly we hear the new owners arriving home. We all run into the yard, dashing like mad from our nostalgic breaking and entry.

I keep forgetting to put my hair up in rag curls at night!

I’m running blindly, trying to keep track of my brothers, desperate. Where have they gone? I catch flashes of their clothes as I dash down a set of stairs somewhere. We need to stay together, I insist.

Awake, I have fretted about the coming holidays, with their ties to home and family, memories like glittering lights on a twinkle string. They seem to illuminate only sadness without my mom.

At night, my third eye takes me to a future peculiarly reversed. It’s a future in which my father died instead of my mom. There we are in the midst of the holidays without him, all of us gathered where we always do – in my parent’s kitchen, surrounded by friends, family, trying to make sense of the first holiday without him.

In our daylight conversations, Mr. Bailey suggests we do something completely different and take a trip toNew Yorkright before Christmas.

As I lay sleeping, I dream we are stepping out of the airport into aNew York Citydecorated to the hilt with festive lights, swaying in a brisk winter wind. I feel the straps from the luggage I carry (with two kids we always have lots of luggage) dig into my shoulder as we cross a busy street to our hotel. Then we’re walking through a warm hotel, a corridor decorated with trees and ornaments and people milling, all sorts of people, here, and not home, for the holidays. It feels strange, exciting.

When I wake, I tell Mr. Bailey about myNew York dream.

“You are so impressionable,” he says, his eyes twinkling.

The dreams sometimes detract from the restfulness of my sleep, and sometimes enhance it. I wake with a sinking feeling so often it’s become a part of my morning routine. I imagine actually sinking into my bed, being swallowed by it. It’s not unpleasant.

Eventually, when all of the fantasies of slumber have been dislodged by the slanting soft light of morning, I get up. I RSVP for tonight to my sheets, my pillow, my comforter, my dreams.

Sweet words can sometimes sting!

Children bring so many things to our lives. Devoted, unconditional love, chubby hands placed gently on cheeks, sweet breath kisses, unending admiration for all that you do and are.

Our little darlings can also be sneakily and disarmingly honest. (Photo by Erin Wheeler, check out her website in Links)

They also bring unrelenting honesty. This can be a good thing and a bad thing, and sometimes at the same time.

Two examples pop to mind.

Several months ago, Secondo and I were in my bedroom. She was cavorting on our bed, distractedly watching whatever PBS show was on, and paying some attention to me getting ready.

I was busy treating the process of getting ready as an episode of Extreme Wardrobe Selection, with intense clothing demolition, salvage and various attempts at guerrilla accessorizing. I was stripping off clothes like I was in the dressing room at Gap and diving through my closet in my unmentionables, when Secondo suddenly exclaimed between giggles:

“Mommy, that’s so funny!”

“What, my darling?” I answered, about to wrestle myself into a flattering pair of leggings.

“When you walk, your bottom is all jiggly!” she said, laughing heartily.

That stopped my prancing. “Secondo!” I said, shocked, turning to face her.

As adults we are conditioned to respond to comments insensitive to our emotions with fiery retort. But as I turned, Secondo’s face with all smiles, lit up by her unconditional love and adoration of me. She threw her arms open to hug me, still giggling.

Her comment, despite dealing a blow to my vanity, to her was a simple realization enveloped in her admiration for her Mommy, wiggly tush and all. And that was the real stunner – her acceptance and love wrapped up in her scrutiny of my derrière.

The second example of this was aimed at Mr. Bailey. It’s essential for this case to know Mr. Bailey is a physical cross between Jimmy Stewart (height) and Steve Young (build).

There we were walking through the throngs of tourists on Pier 39 inSan Francisco. Late afternoon, wind whipping as it does off of the Bay, bodies pushing along to the beat of a street musician’s bongo drums, Prima and I got separated from Mr. Bailey and Secondo (Sisi, as we sometimes call her).

Hanging out by the tour boats, Mr. Bailey soon emerged from the crowds with Sisi and we started out again, towards our hotel.

“Whoa!” Mr. Bailey said as he got within earshot, “That was crazy! This lady on a bike just ran into me!”

Prima, without missing a beat, nonplussed: “Was the biker OK?”

Since he and I were overcome with laughter, I’m not sure if he felt quite the same measure of abject acceptance and love. But I can report that Mr. Bailey, being who he is, shared this story several times throughout the trip.

It’s a Messy (Wonderful) Life

When I first started writing this blog, I was telling a friend about a little frustration I was experiencing with Mr. Bailey. She gasped and smiled, astonished and relieved.

“But I thought it was a ‘Wonderful Life’ for you!”

The truth will set you free, even if the truth is a emotional mess. Art by Max Fujishama

“Are you kidding me?” I told her, laughing along. Right then, I silently vowed to make sure this blog wasn’t just some cherry-coated version of my messy life.

It’s been really messy lately.

I lost my mom to cancer 12 weeks ago yesterday.

Her death was the culmination of two years of head-spinning living. (She was never dying, until the very end, when she was.) Chemo and vacations, radiation and celebrations, laughing and crying, wig shopping, nail biting, port accessing and tests that went our way and, then, didn’t.

There were highlights – a family trip that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, a closeness with my dad and my siblings, an appreciation for what the day would bring and, ultimately, a good excuse for me to get off the crazy breakneck pace treadmill of modern life and focus on what really mattered.

Maybe by that list you can tell I am an optimist, a half-full kind of girl.

But the truth is, since my mom died, it’s hard to be half-full.

When you walk around missing an essential part of yourself, of your spirit and guide, your own personal unconditional, it’s difficult to feel fully committed to optimism.

“Write,” Mr. Bailey would tell me. “Write,” my best friends would softly suggest. “Write,” my therapist would encourage.

I made all kinds of excuses.

Modern Mary contemplates what and where to write from here.

“I can’t get into Modern Mary’s headspace right now,” I would say.

“It’s too fresh,” I would rationalize.

“No one wants to hear about my grief,” I would moan. And some days that really feels achingly true.

Today I realized with all my excuses and all my faux writer’s blocks, I was breaking that vow to be honest with my readers about my messy life.

I think my readers can handle the muddle because life is messy, just like my Mom used to tell me.

Sometimes it’s so messy it can take your breath away and make you doubt what you know to be true.

But the mess is beautiful and difficult, and ultimately what makes us fellow travelers on this journey of life.

And all we can do sometimes is just to share it.

Prima: Master of Destruction – and Invention

All kids destroy things. I knew this when I had children because growing up my father used to tell us he had figured out our mission as his kids: to destroy everything he owned. (We would laugh and shake our heads, and occasionally feel guilty because we had just wrecked a car or broken a plate or destroyed a brand-new skateboard.)

But I didn’t truly comprehend it until I became acquainted with Prima and Secondo.

Prima tries to keep us from her latest creative destruct---er---invention.

Prima especially. While all kids destroy things, Prima has a special gift at the creative, systematic and, Mr. Bailey and I should face it, total annihilation of her things.

Cutting Barbie’s hair? Boring. How about cutting her sister’s clothing in cross hatches in the back as they played fashion designer? Coloring on walls? Snore. How about working down her sidewalk chalk into a fine paste that she then uses to create a mural on the back of the house? Then uses a stencil and a bit more water to “paint” chalk letters onto the playroom floor? Not. Kidding.

If Mrs. Bailey has found this, there's more (and more and more) of it elsewhere.

Sneaking real food from the kitchen to play with in her playroom kitchen? Amateurish. Prima instead snuck cinders out of the fireplace (inconveniently located in the playroom) and created a sink full of ash consommé she ladled into bowls and served to her stuffed animals. Yup, oh, and she was only 2 at the time.

Give this child 10 minutes out of sight and she will use what she has at arms length to go anywhere her imagination leads. Mr. Bailey and I adore this about her. It also drives us absolutely batty.

Soil from potted plants becomes coffee mixed with water and infused with flower petals and grass for her drive-through coffee shop on the back patio. Boxes (some still in use) are broken down or built up into sets for plays. When the script calls for snow for several scenes, a tiny rip in an old stuffed animal is capitalized upon and a thorough dusting of white fluff decorates her stage.

Prima works chalk into a fine paste for multiple taggings throughout the Bailey home.

Was I this – ahem – creative when I was a child? I ask myself, as I scrub Secondo’s skin to rid it of the “I love you” in black acrylic paint across her belly.

Prima explains to me she painted it across Secondo’s pink leotard, salvaged from the dress-ups, because they were playing American Idol, and, sorry Mommy, the paint just leaked through onto her skin.

Sigh.

The graffiti artist caught red-handed.

In efforts at sanity, I have tried to corral her spirit into less destructive play. The playroom rules I posted encourage, “Please use only pretend water,” and “Please do not cut up tiny scraps of paper.”

But these attempts at setting reasonable limits have only spurred her inventiveness instead of curtailing the damage to our home.

To console ourselves, Mr. Bailey and I try to imagine what her ability of seeing new possibility in old things will bring Prima in her future – maybe she’ll develop unconventional therapies to help cure cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease or perhaps she’ll work for NASA, inventing equipment for a Mars landing or maybe she will create materials to make commercial airliners destruction-proof.

This helps. At least until the next mangled, dismembered, destroyed, or dissected thing is discovered.