"This problem seems to be uniquely American," said my therapist on Thursday. "I hear it all the time -- people work like mad to get ready for vacation, and then they work like mad when they get back. Europeans manage it, what, six or seven times a year!"
"Yeah," I said. "Why do they do that to themselves?"
Vacation, when I was growing up, was an Event, like Christmas. it was something we longed for all year, and when it was finally here, it was almost an anti-climax. We didn't do vacations much when I was very young -- I have vague memories of going to the North Carolina mountains when I was seven. All I really remember is the hotel pool. And there were the trips to my grandparents' beach house, but those were hardly vacations -- it was just like being at home, only with an ocean out our front door.
Vacations were meant to be exotic. We were supposed to do things that we'd never do when we were at home, lolling about on our summer breaks and complaining of the heat and boredom and chores and working in Granddaddy's garden. Vacations meant a week away from our grandparents, and a week away from Days of Our Lives, and a week away from the cat. It was also a week of forced togetherness.
We began taking vacations when my parents both began working at JP Stevens, later Stevcoknit, a textile factory that had shut-down maintenance scheduled for the week of the 4th of July. All employees -- with the exception of the maintenance crew -- were required to take that week off. The first year, we went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, saw Kitty Hawk, visited Ocracoke, watched the Lost Colony "outdoor drama," and went to the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. What I remember most from that vacation was watching bowling on TV (we didn't have cable, and who knew there were so many channels?), and our car breaking down in the middle of absolute nowhere on a deserted stretch of road on one of the barrier islands. We saw rabbits standing at alert beside the road, and other than that, there was nothing but us and the ocean and the road stretching in front of us.
We blew a radiator hose, and my dad tried to stretch the hose far enough to reconnect, but no such luck. Eventually, he hitched a ride with a trucker who drove him the 20-odd miles to the nearest town, where he bought a new hose and filled up a container with water. We were terrified of axe murderers and people with no teeth and our father never returning.
The following year, in a different car, we went to the North Carolina mountains. We'd invested in a tent, and Mama made reservations at three different campgrounds -- one near Cherokee, one near Grandfather Mountain, and one near Carowinds to break up the return trip. And that set the stage for our vacations for as long as my mom lived, even after my dad left, even after she began nursing school, even after most of us had moved away, after we had our own jobs and lives and families. Each year, she tried to take a trip to the mountains with whoever wanted to go.
After that first year of moving around from place to place, Mama decided it was best just to stay close to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Mostly, we did things that didn't cost much. We'd get up in the morning and pick a hike from the guidebook. Preferably one that talked about waterfalls. Once during the week, we'd go whitewater rafting or tubing. We'd spend the inevitable day at the laundromat drying out our soaked and mildew-scented sleeping bags. We cooked at the campground each night but one, and the last night, we'd roast hotdogs and marshmallows over a fire.
I don't remember the last time I went on a mountains vacation with my family. Was it the summer after my sophomore year of college? Was it later than that? Did we even go that year, after my grandmother's death and in the midst of my grandfather's extended grief? Somewhere, Vacation became a ritual with few distinguishing characteristics -- the patterns of the first couple of years (we have to go into Cherokee to get the gigantic jawbreakers!) settled in.The vacations, all of them, bleed together into a single week of fond memories and half-remembered snapshots. I read Walden in that week and Anna Karenina and The Grapes of Wrath, and remembering those stories always brings with it the smell of pine forests and mountain streams. I got a Sony Walkman for my birthday, and a George Michael tape to go with it. I walked a trail that went under a waterfall. I sat with my brothers on a rock and had my picture taken. The cars shifted and changed, but the overpacked trunk and the faint aura of carsickness and the plastic brown-and-tan box that rode on the roof remained the same.
I don't know what Mama did to get ready for the vacations. I don't know if she went through the same agonies of trying to finish everything possible before we left. I don't remember anything of the fights my brothers and I surely had, or the surliness of my adolescence, or what it was like for everyone else that first relief-filled trip without my dad, when my mom tried so hard to impose fun on us. I just have vague memories of pleasure.
And now, even with all that practice of ritualized vacation, I don't know what to do, or even what I want. So I return to my remaining family. I remember those who are gone in hydrangea blooms and the whiff of star jasmine and the okra plants in my yard. Tomorrow, I'll get in my car and drive the 15 or so hours south, and I'll try to let go of work and my real life. I'll find the ocean and I'll remember too much of what I was like when I grew up in North Carolina. And I'll return with a tan, and a lot of pictures to post to flickr and facebook, and I'll slide back into my life, working madly to catch back up.
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