Six days before departure they've each packed two suitcases with essentials: She has all her dresses, a blue poncho, six pairs of earrings and a dozen shades of homemade lipgloss. He has four pairs of swim trunks, a broken snorkel and a boatload of impractical toys.
Daggers flicked out at me from his eyes when I plucked two plastic vials of a chemistry set and held them up between my thumb and forefingers … daring to question the need for experimentation during our annual sojourn to southern Maine.
He opened his mouth but said nothing as sharp as his eyes had already conveyed.
I gingerly put them back. I know this is not a battle I will win directly.
If I have learned anything since becoming a parent it's that children may be unable to measure time or distance with the precision of an adult, but that doesn't mean they are oblivious to the need to keep track of its cosmic forces.
“When are we leaving?”
It is a question I will have answered four-thousand-eight-hundred-and-fifty-six times before the car pulls away from the house on that magical day … five days from now.
Roughly four days after I'd washed every stitch of clothing in the house; three days after I'd run errands and returned library books, and one day after I'd repacked their bags to include practical summer attire, such as sweatshirts and changes of underwear.
We will get four miles out of town, and the question will change. Slightly.
“When are we getting there?”
Honestly, it's a question that has no correct answer.
We could say: “Four hours … if we don't stop … or hit traffic … or decide to turn this clown show around and go back home.” Four hours might as well be four minutes or four days. … and it's always losing pieces when taken in chunks.
“What time are we getting there now?”
We could make them work for it: “When the clock on the dashboard says '1:30' … if we don't stop ... or hit traffic … or decide to join the circus.”
“That clock is wrong,” my daughter reminds me.
“Then add four minutes.”
My husband sets his jaw and grips the wheel a little more tightly. He wonders why automotive companies don't make family vehicles that employ sound-proof partitions that can be raised and lowered with the ease of power window technology.
He also wonders how we managed to make children who can't be distracted with portable electronics.
“Hey! Let's play I spy. … or Twenty questions … or The license plate game,” he'll say as we inch along on the highway adding who-knows-how-many-minutes-to-this-ordeal.
Predictably, each attempt at entertainment ends in disagreement: “I saw it first” … “I can't think of any more questions” … “I can't read Indiana!”
He grips the wheel even tighter.
There is no way around it. No way to avoid stop-and-go traffic. No way to avoid the zillion and one questions about arrivals and departures and the tedious fights that break out over whose gaze trespassed beyond their side of the car.
I used to think vacation angst was a problem of planning. I wondered whether it was a shortfall of stealth.
Couldn't we save ourselves all of this angst if we said nothing, packed in the dead of night and took off one morning as if we were just going off to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread?
The mystery of this thing known as vacation only intensifies after arrival. “Are we there yet” morphs into sixty million new questions, all of them leading up to the inevitable “When are we leaving?”