Friday, April 15, 2011

A Family Path

I sat down today to write this week’s column and nothing came. Some weeks I have a dozen ideas circling around my head, begging to be the topic of the week. Other weeks, it’s more slim pickings. This week, it was downright anemic.

It might be in part because my brain is otherwise occupied. In less than 12 hours a rental car will pull out of my driveway and will head West. For three days we’ll drive, then for three days we’ll explore the mountains of Colorado, and finally, for three days we’ll drive back. As the mom, if anything is forgotten along the way, it will always be my fault. So as the stack of ‘must takes’ slowly grew on the kitchen table (including, but not limited to video gaming devices, iPods, sunglasses, Sudoku books, drawing pads, granola bars, assorted chargers, and a fully charged camera), I suddenly had to slam on the brakes of my rattled brain and come up with something to write about this week.

When the afternoon started slipping away, still with no ideas, I resisted the urge to panic. Then my middle son walked through the door. His school day was over, but my writing day had just begun. I sat for a few minutes and listened to his latest stories from the halls of the high school, then I sighed deeply and told him I needed his help. I told him I needed an idea, something exciting to write about this week. I warned him that I felt like people were probably tired of hearing about our move, so what other topics did he think might interest readers?

He didn’t hesitate to offer his advice. “How ‘bout you tell them how you’re going to stuff your three kids into the back seat of a car, and make them suffer for three whole days?” You see, my boy is upset that we’re not renting a minivan for this cross country trip. The last time we drove that far, he had lots of room to spread out. But this time, we’re only taking three of the kids, and we figured we’d save some money (almost eight hundred dollars, to be exact) by getting a large car, instead of a van.

I’m fairly confident that he’ll survive. Heck, he might even have some fun. I’ve tried telling him this fact, but he’s currently under the teen spell of filtered hearing and all he can process is that he has to share breathing air with two brothers, for six days of total driving time.

But that same teen spell also prevents him from remembering the things his mom remembers. I was sorting through some old pictures the other day, and I got lost in a bad case of nostalgia. There on my screen were hundreds of snippets of memories, pockets of time that we got to block out the world and spend time with just the six of us. No ringing phones or work obligations to distract us. The open road was our path to family bonding. I was reminded, by the snapshot after snapshot of smiles, of just how much fun it is to just be ‘us’ for a bit.

The interesting thing is that the family dynamic changes with each trip. As my children age, and slowly turn into the people they are going to become, they go through personality spells. On one trip the littlest one will bond with his only sister. They’ll split sandwiches at Subway and share the headphone splitters on the DVD player. On the next trip he might latch onto his oldest brother, making their own special memories along the way.

The sad part about this trip to me is that our magical window is closing. This is our first big trip without one of our children. Job obligations are keeping my girl home. We’re down to three boys. In just a few short months, as my son heads off to college, we’ll suddenly be down to only two boys in the house. Only two boys to share the backseat and the booth at the diner. The pattern of our family, and our family trips, is changing.

I look forward to the next ten days. I know there will be conflicts. If three brothers could travel two thousand miles together and not fight once, it would concern me. But I know my gang. We’ll also laugh a lot. We’ll see some crazy sign on the side of the highway, for some weird truck stop or fudge warehouse, and we’ll beg dad to stop. If the pleas don’t work, someone will fake a bathroom emergency. Because, no matter what, we’ll get our fudge and buy that old fashioned rubber band gun.

We’ll stop in big cities and small towns. We’ll count down the mileage signs, as we get close to places the kids have heard about on TV. And then, when we finally arrive in Indianapolis, and Chicago, we’ll make the kids put down their distractions (“headphones OUT!”) and pretend to gaze at the city, from our highway view at 65 miles an hour. Then, for the four thousandth time, we’ll discuss whether driving by a major city counts as having ‘been there’.

Today it’s all ahead of us. I’m trusting that the rental car will be ready for us in the morning, and all my planning will pay off. If this trip turns out like the ones in the past, in a blink of an eye I’ll be back at this screen, our trip over, the bags unpacked, and I’ll wonder just where the time went. So if you run into my middle son, and he tries to complain to you, about how his mother must not care about him because she forced him to (gasp!) share a car seat with his brothers, do me a favor.

Ask him if he’s had any good fudge lately.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Eye on the Prize

The other day I told my husband that the details of this cross-country move we’re about to make sometimes make me feel like I’m in the middle of a difficult pregnancy. I get so tied up with the anguish in the middle that I forget about the baby we’ll see on the other end.

When we first realized we’d like to settle long term in Colorado all I could think about was the ‘baby’ - the amazing scenery we could call our backyard, the dry climate that would remedy some of our health issues, and the wide variety of National Parks we’d be able to explore on long weekends. After a long, winding road of events, the job finally came through. That western state would be our new home. But suddenly the pictures of the baby slipped from my mind.

In almost an instant the lists began to form. There were so many things that needed to be done, to get our family uprooted from this home we’ve had in New York for a handful of years. Colorado was no longer in the forefront of my thoughts. New York was. The things we loved about New York and the things that needed to be done before we could walk away from this East coast life.

Of course getting the house on the market was a top priority. All of those ‘let’s finish some day’ projects had to be done, today. We did major updates when we moved here, but a family of six can be hard on a house, especially when that family includes three active boys. There were finger prints to wash off every light switch and dings to repair in bedroom walls.

We’ve watched the shows on HGTV. We knew all those fun colors that the kids picked for their bedroom walls would have to be made more buyer friendly. The ceilings, which were the only surfaces not to be changed when we moved in, finally needed a nice coat of paint. The bathrooms got simple updates, with new flooring, fixtures and bead board. One of my friends wisely commented, “It’s like you’re doing every HGTV show, all at once!”

I’m sure my Facebook friends are tired of hearing about it. I’ve been scattered and weary for the past few weeks. The silver lining has surely been the visitors we’ve had the past two weekends. A week ago we spent some quality time with my mother in law and father in law, as they helped us clip away at our lists. Then this past weekend my handy brother in law, and his wife, blessed us with their home repair skills also. The irony for them is that the memories we’re making are just propelling us closer to a move far away from them.

Besides the undying support of wonderful in-laws, the other thing that keeps me sane is the little snapshots of what’s coming in our new life. Just when I’m getting caught up in the chaos of my current home life, I get a blast of fresh encouragement. The other day it was a man and his young daughter, checking out books about the National Parks in the west. They were planning a family trip there and wanted to do some research.

As I scanned the book’s bar codes and slipped the due date cards in their slots, a comment slipped out of my mouth. “I’m moving out west in a few months. I’ll live right next to these parks.” The little girl’s eyes grew wide. Her dad graciously replied, “That’s really great! Good luck with your move.” It hit me again. I’m moving. To a place that’s in the shadow of those amazing parks. Don’t forget the image of the baby.

Then a significant date arrived on the calendar. My dad’s birthday was Sunday. I sent him a card and then an email, but it’s been way too long since I’ve given him a hug. In the five years since we’ve lived in New York, he’s been able to come see us just twice. We’ve traveled back to his house in Missouri just once. I’ve seen my dad (and my kids have seen their maternal grandmother and grandfather) just three times in five years. That fact hurts my heart.

He and my stepmom volunteer at a YMCA camp in Colorado every autumn. I’ll get to see them every year once we live there. At least once a year - maybe even more. My siblings in the western part of the country will become more familiar to my children too. My crazy little brother, who has always been able to make me laugh, will be able to drive to my house in just over a day. His son, who’s growing up way too quickly, will soon have active memories of his Aunt Judy. The same can be said for most of my other nephews and nieces, the children of my own siblings.

It will be very difficult to drive away from the large, loving group of people I married into over two decades ago. But it will be a joy to spend more time with my side of the family too. It’s the ultimate definition of bittersweet for me.

Every big change in life has benefits and drawbacks. Every decision changes the road that memories will take. This is the hard part about being a grown up. Having to weigh the good and bad for a family with so many personalities and opinions can be daunting. The day we decided to move our family away from this great place called New York, we were very aware that it would change the course of six different lives.

But the train’s on the tracks. It’s hurling forward. It’s time to stop pondering the implications of what’s coming down the tracks and pick up a paintbrush. Those bathroom walls aren’t going to paint themselves.