Most families come home from a summer vacation relaxed and tanned, with souvenirs and seashells. We return with stories of neglect and near disaster, carrying more emotional baggage than we left with. Empty suitcases go to the basement, but the emotional baggage—the stuff I don’t want to deal with—hides in the upstairs hall closet behind the sheets and towels.
When I can’t shut the door, I excavate items pushed to the back years ago. “What’s this?” I pull out a weird plastic-paper something.
Jaye thrusts it at her younger sister. “It’s the bathing suit from that hotel in Virginia! You thought it was cool!” Em clearly remembers because she twists her lips and glares at me.
My daughter Em was 5 years old and her sister, Jaye, 7, the year our weeklong Myrtle Beach vacation fell during a business trip my husband couldn’t postpone. He decided to fly down and join us midweek, leaving me with the girls, the luggage and a 15-hour drive—gas, food and bathroom stops not included.
We were renting a small cottage with a full kitchen and fridge. Bedsheets, bath, beach and kitchen towels went in Suitcase No. 1. Check. Favorite cereals, snacks, juice boxes, granola bars, treats in Suitcase No. 2. Check. Large cooler with frozen and refrigerated items. Check. Like many moms, I leave little to chance.
And that’s the problem. Most of us need a vacation to recover from our family vacation. In comparison, large-scale troop deployment is easier.
Yes, the prospect of the long drive stressed me out.
I checked online and decided to stay overnight at a hotel in Virginia with an indoor pool. It would break up the drive and give us something to look forward to. We loaded the car (one hour), barely got the trunk closed (three tries), put essentials (one bag) at the girls’ feet, and we were ready.
We left Syracuse at noon and arrived at 8 p.m. But when we opened the overnight bag, Em’s bathing suit wasn’t there.
“You can swim in a T-shirt and shorts,” I told her.
“Can’t we get my suitcase?”
“I’d have to unload the whole car. Sorry, sweetheart.”
Down at the pool, Em hunched on a chaise lounge. She wouldn’t even dangle her feet in the water.
The pony-tailed lifeguard asked, “Why aren’t you swimming?”
“Because my dumb mom forgot to pack my swimsuit.”
“We’ve got disposable bathing suits. You want one? It’s free.” She pulled a thin package from the towel cabinet. Em took it into the locker room and came out smiling. The bathing suit was Tyvek, and she crinkled as she walked. She looked better suited to enter the U.S. Postal Service mail stream than a hotel pool. Jaye hooted. I elbowed her to be quiet.
Afterward, Em was about to toss the suit in the garbage but I took it from her. Something told me . . . never mind.
The next day, we arrived in Myrtle Beach at 3 p.m. I just wanted to get the key to the cottage, unpack and crash. But the girls chanted, “Beach! Beach! Beach!” After hauling their suitcases up to their bedroom, I snuck down the hall to the master bedroom for a brief 10-minute nap.
“MAAHHMMEE!” Em’s wail jolted me awake. “Where’s my swimsuit?”
She’d gone through a growth spurt, so we’d just bought three new ones. Intending to wash them before the trip, I’d left them on the front hall table.
I was about to yell an apology when Jaye’s loud whisper cut me short.
“I told you not to let Mom pack your bag. You can’t trust her. And you’re old enough to do it yourself.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are. You’re 5. I told you what happened when I was 4. Mom forgot my underwear. She kept saying it was OK, I could wear my bathing suit all week.”
“Yeah, gross. And she wasn’t going to buy any underwear ’til I started crying. I started packing my own clothes after that. At least she packed your underwear, right?”
The whites were still in the dryer back home.
They say you can’t remember pain. But stupidity? That’s unforgettable.
Fifteen years later, the contents of the linen closet still cause guilt. I grab the disposable suit from Jaye, now grown up, ball it up and shove it into a garbage bag. “Don’t need that anymore.”
“Speaking of which . . . “ Jaye holds up a bottle of color-changing suntan lotion. “Jeez, Mom, this is like 10 years old. It’s expired. Whatcha keeping it for?”
“You never know when you’ll need an extra bottle of suntan lotion.”
“Yeah, like that time you sent me to sleepaway camp without any lotion or bug spray. Remember I came home all bitten and sunburnt?”
I sigh, turn back to the closet, and discover a set of striped bed linens stained with streaks of suntan oil from our Cape Cod vacation last summer. I’d forgotten beach towels, so I made everyone dry off with the fitted sheet and lie on the sand with the flat sheet. I inspect the stains. At least the pillowcases came home unmarked.
Linda Lowen. She lives in Syracuse with her husband and two college-age daughters,
who go by Jaye and Em in her writing.