Va-cation.

The seventh installment of, what was it called again? Take heart, there should only be one more. 

‘Do you want to go [fishing],’ my sister surveyed my level of interest for her proposed activity.

It was day five of our vacation. Everything I owned was covered in a thin layer of sand and I’d spent more time in a bathing suit during those days than in all of the previous two, maybe three years combinedMy level of enthusiasm for making memories had been greatly diminished from four weeks of living out of a duffel bag and the vaguely nagging feeling that had begun consuming me; a growing reminder that the drive all the way back to Calgary was imminent.

‘I really don’t want to go [fishing] at all,’ I finally spoke up, ‘but I know the boys will enjoy it.’ Which is really the ultimate litmus test for any vacation activity. And why we climbed in the car and drove forty-ish minutes to the Wolf Lake Hatchery so the boys and their cousins could try their hand at catching and releasing small fish. For twenty minutes.

After all, vacation is really for the children.

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Eleven of us had been staying in South Haven, Michigan in a rented house a couple of blocks from ‘downtown’, just shy of a mile’s walk from local South Beach.

Barring the noisy main road that ran right outside one of the bedrooms, it was a pretty good set-up, more than adequate for our goals which were the same goals anyone vacationing with young children might have: keep kids alive, keep parents alive, wear kids out sufficiently so there is at least one hour between the time kids finally fall asleep and parents peel themselves off the couch to go to bed.

We had talked, briefly, about the possibility of renting paddle boards or kayaks, but Lake Michigan had assumed a slightly oceanic state, with choppy water, rolling waves and red flags hanging ominously from wooden posts on the beach, for most of our stay. We could only assume this would not pair well with our nonexistent paddling-kayaking skills.

Thus our water-based activities amounted to: going to the beach twice each day, carefully placing blankets on the sand that nobody sat on for more than two consecutive minutes, and keeping track of six children. Staying just long enough to justify the energy expended in getting everyone ready to go to the beach, finding a spot and setting up our space, and packing it all up again.

Daytrips weren’t really a priority – much as I’d secretly hoped to see three-hours-away Sleeping Bear Dunes – on account of the three days’ driving looming on the approaching horizon. But we did drive to Saugatuck one morning for coffee followed by a few hours at the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, where the beach was smaller than we remembered it and biting, black flies followed us wherever we went. Along with a slightly suspicious odor of possibly decaying animal flesh.

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But, before you cross it off your list! If you are the type of person who likes a fifteen, err twenty-five minute walk through a beautiful forest spilling out onto an uncrowded beach, this is the place for you. Me. For maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t like sitting an arm’s length away from terra-cotta-colored strangers wearing what amounts to brightly colored underwear.

Addendum: vacation is really for the children and people watching. 

It’s how I amuse myself everywhere I go, staring at people, mesmerized by their clothes and hair, trying to figure out a tiny bit of their stories. Like is the young-looking married woman setting up a tent on the beach, the mom of the teenager standing beside her? Or is it her sister?

Are the gray-haired women walking along the water, both wearing denim shorts and black shirts, one thin and wiry and the other plump, a couple? Or just old friends?

Is the prematurely grey, late-twentysomething man that we saw at sunset one night, walking hand in hand with a young blonde woman, actually on vacation with his parents? A theory I developed two days later, at sunset, when I spied him sitting next to us on the beach.

‘At sunset’ being a legitimate event in the life of any beach town, as it turns out.

Last year when we stayed on the Oregon coast, people quietly emerged from our Truman Show-esque housing development each night to gather at the top of the beach and watch the sun go down. I assumed it was an Oregon thing, until the professor and I walked down to the beach on our first night in South Haven, and found hordes of people sitting along the pier, on the beach, on the grass by the yacht club; all coming out to watch that orange ball slip into the water.

It never gets old.

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We were strolling within the two block radius that is downtown South Haven one morning, on a very brief and fruitless jaunt in search of good coffee, when we walked past a mom who’d clearly had it with the preschooler sitting in her stroller. She used ‘the monster voice’ as the professor likes to call it, battling to keep the stroller tray in place while the less-than-stellar preschooler fought to fling it into the air. ‘That’s it,‘ she fumed, ‘I’ve had it with you.’

‘Va-cation,’ I sang, referencing that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza made up a signature jingle for himself: Co-stanza.

It proved a useful, smile-inducing addition to the myriad of scenarios that present themselves when engaged in the enterprise that is vacation. Kids waking up before 7am every day? Forced family photos with unhappy children? Unable to take your son kayaking because the water’s too choppy? Taking six children fishing and everybody catches a fish except one, bitterly unhappy child?

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Va-cation!

On our last morning there, my sister and I walked to the beach for an 8am yoga class. It had been approximately ten months since my last attempt at a downward-facing dog, but I had high hopes the one hour session would give me a sufficient amount of zen to make it through ‘the drive’. The fact that I’m trying to quantify zen might indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of what it actually is.

Yoga-on-the-beach might be the perfect metaphor for vacation with children.

What could be better? Being quiet, standing on the sand and staring out at the water….while trying to contort your body in ways it resents. Lying down for a well-earned shavasana, after an hour of bending and holding; the possibility of drifting off to sleep tantalizingly within reach.

Except for the one trillion particles of sand boring tiny holes into your back.

Sitting in the car on the drive back, the zen having left me within the first fifteen minutes, I could still feel the sand in my back.

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