Thoughts On Family Traveling
and The Bonds We Make (or Break)
I don’t speak to my parents, or my siblings. I haven’t in a long time, and have no plans to do so anytime in the near future.
The reasons why aren’t particularly relevant to this story, which is about family traveling. What is important is that my recent Spring Break trip to Outer Banks, North Carolina with Mary and my 11-year-old daughter, Alex, brought back memories of a time when my parents and I were still very close.
This was many years ago, before my first sibling, a baby girl, was stillborn. Before the arrival of twins overwhelmed my parents with the responsibilities of raising three children at an age (28 and 29) when they were still practically kids themselves. Before our lives became dominated by constant arguing, financial problems, multiple types of abuse, and crappy life circumstances (like my mom wrapping her tiny Fiat around a telephone pole to avoid hitting a homeless person illegally crossing the street in the middle of a thunderstorm).
It was the last time I can recall my immediate family being what anyone might describe as happy.
I was around five or six when my parents became youth group leaders at Holy Cross, the Episcopal Church we attended in Decatur, Georgia. My dad, who had always dreamed of being a psychologist, took naturally to the leadership role, and the kids responded well to the group exercises and activities he and my mom conjured up for them. The teens our family became closest with– Steven, Lauren, John P, Amy, Mark, Lisa, etc– began spending a lot of time at our house.
My dad put in a rumpus room downstairs, with a state-of-the-art stereo sound system (including a phonograph, 8-track AND a reel-to-reel player), bumper pool table, pachinko machine and wet bar. It seemed like every weekend there was somebody hanging out at our place, listening to music, having fondue parties and just goofing around in the basement. But things got even more exciting when the weather turned warm and we began taking getaways with the youth group.
Even then, I was always happiest outdoors. We’d spend weekends camping in the North Georgia mountains, hiking up Blood Mountain and Brasstown Bald. We’d go backpacking along the Appalachian Trail: I can still picture my 6-year-old self, terrified but loving it, crossing a rushing stream while carrying a heavy pack, praying I didn’t slip on algae-covered rocks and get swept away. We went to Florida, swimming and fishing from the beach, then walking the boardwalk with eyes wide as saucers, dazzled by bright lights and flashy colors of the arcades and souvenir shops.
But the family traveling memory that sticks out the strongest is the trip we took to the coast of North Carolina, staying in a 2-level beach house not unlike the one my family and I stayed in last week. We spent our days surfing the waves on floats, riding dirt bikes up and down the beach, and digging up clams in the shallows.
The youth group must have been 15-16 by then (I was a boy of 7 or 8) so my parents had the girls sleep on the top level, while the boys slept on the bottom level. Since I was young and two of the girls were my regular babysitters, I was allowed to hang out with them. I can still picture them all in their oversized nightshirts, mussing my shaggy bowl-cut hair and cooing over my blue eyes, singing along to Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and dancing around the room.
I was in love with my life, and in love with my parents for giving it to me.
But sadly, it didn’t last. With the arrival of my brother and sister, our outdoor adventures largely came to an end. Within a few years, my parents stepped down from their roles as youth group leaders, and most of our close teen friends graduated high school and moved off to college. By the time I turned 12, my relationship with my parents started to go sour.
I’d always been extremely close to my grandparents, whose home my mother and I lived in for nearly two years after my father was drafted into the Army during Vietnam. When Granny and Granddad moved from midtown Atlanta to a rural home they built on numerous acres of woodland forest, I began spending more time in the summers there with them. My cousin Jon lived nearby, and we’d spend days in the woods, looking for snakes and frogs, shooting target practice with our BB guns, and using ropes to swing across (and splash into) a creek behind his house.
Spending time in the country with my grandparents, who also took Jon and I to their modest cabin on north Georgia’s Lake Hartwell for several weeks every summer, became a refuge from a home life I began to revile. Nature became my sanctuary– a safe place where nobody criticized me, nobody smacked me around, nobody shrieked that they wished I had never been born. In nature, I found the peace I so desperately craved in my life. I escaped to it every chance I got.
It was strangely emotional to have all these memories flooding back into my mind during our week in the Outer Banks. It’s not often that I think about my traumatic childhood, and it’s even more rare that I recall those fuzzy years before everything went to hell in a handbasket. But, in retrospect, I suppose I owe my parents a debt of gratitude for those early travel adventures, which gave me a love of the great outdoors that clearly guides the man I am today.
Soon my daughter will be 12, the age at which subtle cracks in the fault lines of my family led to Tectonic shifts in the continents of our interpersonal relationships. I look in her beautiful blue eyes and see my own reflection there. I can’t help but wonder, am I doing this right? Will the decisions I make as a parent today bring us closer together? Or will they ultimately drive us further and further apart until the only solution is not to speak to each other at all?
I suppose there’s no way of knowing for sure. Parenting is a constant balancing act between holding on tight and letting go. My parents got it wrong, as did their parents before them.
But I dream that our adventures– the trips to Sanibel Island when she was younger, our daddy-daughter trips to Yellowstone National Park and Bermuda last year, the family travel adventures in Costa Rica and New York City– are helping us to build strong bonds.
I know there will be rougher patches to come in her teen years. But, as I watch my daughter seeing black bears in the wild for the first time, kayaking through choppy seas, and conquering her fear of heights via hang gliding lessons, I want to believe that these experiences will tie us together for an entire lifetime. And perhaps more importantly, I hope they give her the tools she needs to navigate life’s turbulent waters. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
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