This is not my beautiful house

Today’s guest post is written by my cousin Will Porter.
IMG_4180I’m standing in a men’s restroom stall at a rest stop somewhere along the New Jersey turnpike, something that I’ve done many times before. This time, however, I’m crowding into it with my two daughters, imploring them not to touch anything. How did I get here? What am I doing so far away from the comfort, convenience, and cleanliness of my own bathroom?

A few hours later, I’m pulled off the windy Saw Mill Parkway just north of New York City to clean throw up out of my daughter’s (let’s call her Bixie) car seat with the shirt I am wearing. I’ve used up my glove box stash of napkins and wet naps on two previous bouts of carsickness in the last few hours and, like any Dad worth his salt, am improvising. As the Talking Heads song goes, “This is not my beautiful house . . . where does this highway go to? . . . My God, what have I done?”

These and many other adventures I’ve had over the years taking my children on vacation are the result of a kind of delusional, selective memory from which all parents suffer.

Many of the memories are drawn from my own childhood and have been edited by time. What remains is a fuzzy slideshow of idyllic summers: cheering as we crossed from New Hampshire into Maine, doing the honk honk gesture to truckers, and eating fast food.

Our trip then as now was to my parents’ house in Maine, where we spent our days playing in the sand, exploring in the woods, and generally being sweet, good natured children. In my mind I am sure we never fought, threw up, or retrieved toilet paper from the floor of a men’s room along the NJ turnpike.

An additional aspect of my delusion is that for some reason, I thought that I could make this eleven-hour car trip alone, my wife has a new job and no vacation time.

I’m a high school English teacher during the year, so at this point, the summer stretched out before me like, well, an open road. What could I do but take to it? I was determined to make this a summer to remember and was off to a good start for all the wrong reasons.

When I arrive safely at my parents’ house with my road weary children, my fantasy of filling them up with Grandma’s mac and cheese and whisking them off to bed evaporates.

I see immediately that, unlike their beleaguered shirtless chauffeur, they are neither hungry nor tired. And then there’s the question of accommodations.

Like most parents I know, each night my wife and I transform our children’s bedroom into a climate controlled sensory deprivation sleep chamber.

Thus, my children are trained to reject any non-womb-like bedrooms. Unless you have had the foresight to practice putting your children to bed on squeaky mattresses in total darkness and 100 % humidity, ‘bedtime’ is just another thing you didn’t bring with you on the trip. In short, my day is not over, not by a longshot.

My journey into the discrepancy between memory and reality continues for the duration of my visit.

Dinnertime with two small children is a lot earlier, louder, and messier than my parents had remembered. The same, of course, can be said for breakfast.

And babyproofing, it turns out, is a relatively new concept.

In my first sweep, I move out of reach or hide out of sight a box cutter, a set of binoculars, a camera, several cactuses, and various other sharp, poisonous, or fragile objects.

Generally speaking, there are three adults around at all times, but my children are adept at exploiting holes in our zone defense. Further, the level of concentration it takes to keep track of a three-year-old is apparently a skill that one can lose.

The challenges do not stop at protecting the house from the kids and vice versa.

21st century parenting, it turns out, is as new and bewildering to grandparents as the need to communicate in just 140 characters.

Talking through the emotions behind a tantrum and using timeout as a discipline system are met with a lot of raised eyebrows and knowing looks from my parents. The extinction of a cocktail hour in which children were seen but not heard is also met with incredulity.

Some things, on the trip, however, are just as I remembered them from my own childhood thirty years ago.

My 6 year old daughter, Dee Dee, catches and holds an eel with her bare hands. My 3 year old, Bixie, reels in her first mackerel. We share homemade blueberry pancakes with three generations of my family.

Dee Dee takes the tiller for the first time in the same sailboat in which I learned to sail. We all collect crabs from among the seaweed on the beach. Bixie finds her first piece of seaglass. They romp around the Maine woods and swim in the icy water with their cousins. Dee Dee learns to skip rocks. We all go to Bucks Harbor to get Chocolate Ice Cream just like Sal!

We’ve been home now for just over a week, and already my memory of the trip is getting fuzzy around the edges. Had I not kept some notes on what the visit was like, I would not have been able to write this.

For my children, it took even less time for their memory of their three weeks in Maine to turn into a seamless highlight reel. But it’s a good highlight reel, and I can’t wait to do it all over again next summer.

Thus is parenting a sisyphean trap, or more comically, the optimism of the coyote chasing the roadrunner of his memory off the edge of the cliff. We can’t help but be the joyful patsies of our memory, but why would we want it any other way?

Will’s cousin Lisa Fuller has a new Parenting with Positive Discipline series starting in September. Strategies for parenting in public restrooms offered upon request 🙂 

4 Responses to This is not my beautiful house

  1. Victoria August 26, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    Lisa, I LOVE this!!!! Having trekked solo across country with two small children for many summers, I think your cousin nails the delusional hopes for what the trip will be and the constant recalibration of how difficult it actually is. And the ability we all have to somehow hold onto the lovely memories enough to want to do it again. Thanks for sharing this! Makes me “almost” nostalgic for the toddler days…(and maybe you need another post for the challenges that arise when the pack of cousins become a pack of awkward teens and tweens during these family visits). Keep these great posts coming!!!

    • Lisa August 29, 2014 at 11:11 am #

      Great idea Victoria – I know just the person to write the hilarious piece about parenting tween girls 🙂

  2. Helena August 29, 2014 at 7:35 am #

    Love how this puts things in perspective as I was feeling remorseful that our summer wasn’t all that it “should” have been. 🙂

    • Lisa August 29, 2014 at 11:09 am #

      Helena – you nailed it –
      SHOULD!? According to who? We are all steeped in the idea that it should look a certain way – even when we know better!
      Thank you for sharing.

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