A Holiday Chock Full of GiftsBy Emma Pearson
November 30, 2023
14th August 2018
Back in January this year, for better or for worse, I acquiesced to (i.e., crumbled under) my girls’ insistent requests to visit the US for summer holidays. (I don’t mention Ben in this because Ben was travelling in Latin America for months at that time, and more to the point, doesn’t weigh in on such mundane things as family holidays to the same degree as do the girls).
Nothing against the States but it was never on my & Mike’s wish list as a family destination for various reasons: it’s somewhere we figured all of the kids would visit “on their own dollar” in time, through travel and/or professional lives – much like Australia, New Zealand, and other big anglophone parts of the world; we wanted them to visit countries, parts of the world, that other beers don’t reach; we wanted volunteering to be a core part of their childhood holidays; and heck, I don’t want to put on weight on holiday – if anything I want to lose it! How does anyone ever lose weight in the US?
Had Mike not got ill and died of pancreatic cancer, our family holiday in 2017 would have been volunteering in a northern part of Central or Latin America. This year – not that we planned that far ahead – it might have been the GR 20 in Corsica. (More on that later).
If Mike and I did have a plan of sorts it was that we take the kids to volunteer and visit “an interesting country in Africa, Asia and Latin America on our dollar before they leave home”. Africa – check, with Madagascar & Ghana; Asia – check, with Laos, Thailand and Cambodia; we just ran out of time for Latin America, though Ben made it happen in his gap year just now, volunteering in Ecuador, Peru and Argentina. Volunteering holidays might yet happen when my energy is back up, but the thought makes the blood in my body run cold, because it will now be without Mike. And perhaps without the children. It might be too painful. Volunteering holidays were always my thing, my idea, and I made them happen getting teams and sponsorship together; but Mike revelled in them once we got there. Mike put blood, sweat and tears, muscle and brains, into every volunteering holiday, even though he was super nervous of taking the kids at first. I hate that any volunteering we/I do from now on will be without him.
I digress. So, I collapsed under the requests of “Take us to the States. Take us to New York. You promised to – at least when we turn 18” (really? Sometimes I am convinced I must have early onset dementia the number of “promises” I am alleged to have made).
So, I put it out there, into the universe (i.e., on Facebook), that I had crumbled under the insistent weight of daughters’ pleas. And within hours (it felt) I had multiple invitations to “come to us – please!” that felt so genuine I thought, “well – why not?” I mean, the invitations had even spread to beyond my Facebook buddies. I still don’t know how. Anyway, after checking that all of the invitations were genuine – I have a special technique for this – I formed a fledgling plan. Fly into Boston, fly out of Orlando, and figure out the detail nearer the time.
The plan worked. It’s even coming to an end. All 3 full weeks of it. 6 principal destinations, never moving on too fast (just too tiring, as I do all the driving myself, the figuring out of destinations, locations, booking airbnbs and car rental, flights, the what to dos and where to eats). Much enabled by generous gifts from friends and former colleagues along the way.
First off, a night in Hingham outside Boston, just a little moment with Nathalie, my Brussels days childhood best friend, and some of her family. Just what the doctor ordered to settle in, get out on a boat, be bounced about on a dingy, jump off rocks, eat ice-cream, and walk & talk & catch up & natter & chinwag, before heading further out on Cape Cod where we rested for 4 more days and nights. (I get to see Nathalie again in a few weeks for some adventurous mountain-walking in Corsica, so neither of us felt short-changed by having so little time together).
In Falmouth on Cape Cod, former PDI colleague and friend Sandra booted one of her kids into the basement, and the second onto the sofa bed in the living room so that we four could spread out in proper rooms on proper beds. Biking, runs, walks with Molly the doggy, a boat trip on what would have been Mike’s 55th birthday, and a beautiful reminder of what “relaxed family life” feels like. We even left with a suitcase each of clean clothes. Small luxuries.
Energy replete, we headed to NYC on Amtrak (hmm – trains not as good as the Swiss or French ones, though I was pleased they ran on time). We arrived in NYC and headed to our very humble and rather grotty Airbnb in Brooklyn. Great location, quirky shops and restaurants everywhere. We spent most of the time out and about – visiting museums such as the 9/11 Memorial museum, museum of the Moving Image, museum of Mathematics, museum of Arts & Design; we biked or in-line skated around Central Park (I had a humungous fall because I don’t know how to stop on blades, and it gets pretty steep… the graze on my bum took a full 7 days to stop weeping and sticking to my clothes – it was ugh and painful and messy and sore); meeting up with Monique from Maison de Tara and being accompanied by her to Coney Island where girls only (me included) did some of the rides. Though I sense fear kicking in for the first time since Brussels Walibi days in my teens; I can see that there will be a time when I don’t do wild rides and rollercoasters anymore. Even now there are some I draw the line at.
We visited a magic shop and were all mesmerised by a young student who did card tricks and more for a good while. And I had my first experience of being in a cute cinema where you can order (extremely high quality) food and cocktails and more at your seat and have them brought to you. I ordered vegetable tempura. Where else but NYC? Oh – and we saw a Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen, at which I cried and cried (of course) though perhaps not for the reasons the kids thought. I schlepped to a launderette with what felt like four suitcases of dirty clothes. We loved and hated NYC, and with hindsight we would have spent less time there, and more elsewhere. NYC was the hardest part of the holiday for me – and I only realised later why that was.
On another Amtrak and down to Philly. A lovely Airbnb. Our first Uber experience (yes – really!) I am late to Ubering, and am in love with Uber now. Where we live I either drive, bus it, or use the amazing Alain… no need for Uber. But in Philly, then DC, where we didn’t rent a car, it was invaluable. As with London taxi drivers (indeed taxi drivers anywhere in the world), Uber drivers are fascinatingly interesting people to speak with.
Oh my – we all loved Philly. It’s hard to please all of us all the time, but Philly is where we could all be pleased almost all of the time. A first visit for me (and of course for the kids) and I don’t know how I hadn’t heard just how lovely it is. I could live there. A good size, not too high buildings, lots of greenery, street markets, just the right balance of scale and interest. More weird and wonderful experiences (by this stage of the trip, Megan would get on Google when we arrived somewhere new, and put in the words “weird things to do in ….” and bring a list of ideas to me). In Philly we went to the Magic Gardens, a gun range (yes, I know… but it is exciting to feel that powerful when I have zero power in the rest of my life), went to a glass-making/glass blowing workshop, saw more films at the cinema, visited the excitingly awful Mutter museum full of gory things in big bell jars, like Siamese twins, brains, diseased limbs and more; and of course Liberty Bell. I also fell in love with Whole Foods, but not the price of essentials like feta cheese and quality mozzarella di bufala. I suppose if I lived in the US I’d have to give up on posh European cheeses and acquire a taste for the flat plastic bland stuff that may never have seen a cow or a goat. Perhaps I cannot live in the US after all, even in Philly.
Moving on down to DC, we had just two nights courtesy of yet another former colleague/friend Anne from PDI days. She had seen the Facebook note back in January and said, “come – come to our DC place – we won’t be there as we will be in France, but we will figure out how you get in”. She also said, “eat any food, drink any wine, use any rooms you want, do your washing, don’t worry about washing the sheets afterwards….” It was a peaceful haven for a couple of nights. I’d have loved to have stayed longer had we had longer. We also had two get-togethers with two people I don’t really know that well, but who very generously offered up time and offers of meals once they knew DC was on the itinerary…. John from my OD network, who took us all out for dinner, and Rachael from my grief-writing group, who chaperoned us all around DC, (including arranging a private guided visit to the Capitol, visits to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials), and who handled the brewings of WWIII better than anyone I know (ugh conflict from a selection of the kids over lunch).
It was agonising to have my kids behave so badly – it always feels worse in front of others – knowing I bring a piece of it, they bring another piece, but the massive, invisible undercurrent is our collective sadness, anger and grief at the loss of Mike, at his absence. The day with Rachael was balm to my soul. I had felt very little anxiety about meeting her – as if I knew she could handle all of us, that she of all people would understand just how tough grieving holidays are. She worked magic. Our day with Rachael, short as it was, tense as it was at times, will remain a favourite for all of us.
Next, pick up a car and drive to Annapolis where we stayed with … and here I am searching for an apt descriptor … firm family friends? The Dallanegra family who lived in Sergy, our little French village, up until 9 years ago. Three kids sort of our kids’ ages, two parents sort of mine & Mike’s ages. Firm family friends. I know I am not over-stating the importance of our family friendship. A unique (to me) relationship where every single person in the family is/was friends with each and everyone in the other family. It’s not just a case of “the elder daughter gets on best with Ben, and I get on best with Evie”…. It’s that we all got on with all of them. Nine+ years ago. In the life before. That’s something like 25 separate special relationships, is it not? Anyway – over the years, as I walk past their old (often vacant) house, I grieve a little. I mourn their absence. I wish friends didn’t have to leave, to move house. And with Mike gone, I especially miss people who knew and loved him; who ADORED and ADMIRED him so completely. For they did. Kyrsten, Ben’s age, said, “Mike was my second dad”. And Mike and I always said – and I still do – that Kyrsten is our third daughter. It’s a very very special friendship. So we had 3 nights with them. Not all the family was there, which was a shame. But it meant we had more space to spread out, and also means that we need to come back.
Exciting adventures out on a boat with the lovely Linda – learning/trying to fish, almost needing to be towed back in after dark when the engine wouldn’t re-start; my first experience of sea (well – Chesapeake Bay) kayaking; wobbling around on a slack line; and – particularly wonderfully for me on this very difficult and stressful holiday, well-behaved kids. REALLY well-behaved kids. It’s as though we all received thick balm to our hurt souls. I haven’t seen my kids talk much, openly about Mike. Particularly the girls. But they did here. It felt like it was easier. No rolling of the eyes, and “oh mum!” before I even got to get teary…. Just very soothing. We were all sorry to leave. I wish Sergy to Annapolis were possible on a weekly basis. But we had to leave, with tears in our eyes, and with sorrow, gratitude and joy in our hearts, as Florida, the last part of the holiday was calling.
Quick trip to BWI airport (how convenient is that from Annapolis!), and my/our first experience of Southwest Airlines. Well – I couldn’t not! I have read so many leadership and organisational culture case studies about them. The staff are indeed funny, and – surprise of all surprises – they serve complimentary drinks. Oh – and they were bang on time.
A 2 hour drive to Ponce Inlet, NE of Orlando, courtesy of yet another former colleague (and boss) and dear friend John, where we have now been relaxing for 3 full days – sunning, running into sunrises, paddle boarding, swimming, seeing manatees flop and loll about in the water, seeing dolphins skip and jump through invisible hoops, and watching pelicans dive-bombing just metres away. Oh, and yes, shopping at an massive outlet – a much hated activity for me, but it makes sense at least once a decade (how come clothes in the US are so much cheaper??)
It’s unbelievable to me how little I can do in a day. Get up, go for a short jog into the sunrise, shower, eat, go to the beach, paddle board, swim, come back, shower, eat, rest, eat, rest, eat, watch a film or read, go to sleep… repeat. Gloriously relaxing. And at least one of the kids wishes she could just stay here; she’s convinced it’s better in Florida. I’d find the heat hard, and the lack of mountains harder. Which has made me think that Oregon and Washington State need to be added to my holiday destination list. (No – I don’t have a holiday destination list – just wishes & intentions, and then they might or might not happen).
The holiday is still not over. We still have a full 24 hours before we head to the airport, with clean clothes in our suitcases (a first), but I wanted to write this up now, knowing that if I leave it till I get home it won’t happen.
More than just being a long ramble, this is actually meant to be a long summary of the wonderful – and the less wonderful – things that happened on this trip.
The less wonderful –
** A total meltdown in Central Park on my part. We had just got the in-line blades (me & Megan) and the bikes (Ben & Julia). The tension was there, simmering – as it was all the time we were in NYC. We couldn’t figure out a way to bike and blade on the same tracks, so kept on losing one another. We would wait and still not catch up as a group. Then one or more of the kids was being perfectly horrid to me. Eventually I just burst into tears, missing Mike so much, not wanting any of the holiday – not one little bit. Not wanting to be a mum. Not wanting to do anything other than disappear out of it all. I sobbed and really cried, very snottily and noisily, frightening Ben and Megan in particular, who did their best to soothe me. It was ugly. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. It just hurts very very badly sometimes.
** Multiple complaints and requests along the lines of, “I need this, I don’t have that, well I wanted this, and why do we never do what I want, and I wish you this, and you never that, and you always this”….UGH
** More complaints around accommodation shortfalls in our airbnbs and who has to share with who, and who is on the couch, and who gets the fan or who doesn’t… UGH
** More complaints around food – easily done with one vegetarian veering to vegan, one carnivore, and two non-fussy omnivores with strong penchants for fish…UGH
** More complaints about the weather – too hot, too sticky, too humid, too….
** More complaints about mum’s behaviour (mine – not my mum’s)
** And my permanent, painful, sore, aching missing of Mike, my life partner, husband, lover, dearest friend, and kids’ dad. There are no words I can find. A gaping hole inside all of the time. Whatever might be visible on the outside. (Yes – this is also considered highly effective coping)
Okay – so that’s it for the less wonderful.
The really good stuff –
** Friends’ generosity, patience, treats – all of them – from north to south – Nathalie & Steve, Sandra & Brian, Monique & Denis, Anne & Guillaume, John H, Rachael G, Evie & family, and finally John C & Tara & family. Were it not for the invitations, the gifts of accommodation, the “please come – use the place, whether we are there or not”, we really wouldn’t have come – or at least, not yet and not for this long a time. I sincerely hope that we didn’t overstay our welcome anywhere, and I am so very grateful for these generous outpourings of love, friendship and generosity
** Realising that, stressful as it can be to all be squeezed in together, things did actually work better for my kids (and therefore for me) when we were with other people – in Hingham, on Cape Cod, in Annapolis, and in Florida. And yes, while I often feel mortified by the conflict a particular combination of my kids can create in public…. (it’s very tense-making), on balance they play better, are better people, when with others, even though most of them my kids had never met before. I’d wondered about the wisdom of taking the kids on a trip where so much of what we were going to do was about “meeting mum’s friends”… but it worked for the better. A lesson to hold in mind for a future family holiday if there ever is one
** Being in new places, having new experiences, learning new skills, eating ridiculously large portions of ice-cream, being in and on sea water, seeing sunrises and sunsets, and seeing that this country still seems to function perfectly well despite Donald Trump
It’s time to go home soon – we are all ready. Three weeks is a long time, and I have been away from my work for too long. I also miss my dog. And maybe the cat.
I have scarily big life transitions starting up in September – my first month of being truly “Widowing Empty Nests”. Megan and Julia go to boarding school. Ben goes to university.
I am not looking forward to it. But I am dreading it less than I otherwise might be, were it not for remembering that I have amazing friends in many parts of the world, that they care for and love not just me, but also my/our kids. And remembering that I have resilient kids who, despite still grieving hard from the lousy recent hand that life dealt them, can get themselves up each day and engage with the world more or less socially, and more or less humanly, and build new skills and life experiences.
It is really crap that we can’t have Mike on holiday with us. It’s crap that we can’t share these new experiences with him. It’s crap that we will never get to enjoy empty nesting together, and that it’s me on my own, too soon and alone.
But I have my/our three kids. And I have many wonderful, beautiful, deep friendships with generous and loving models of humanity.
It’s been hard. And it’s been good. And it’s been hard. And it’s been good. And yes, it’s been bloody awful at times. And it’s been soothing too.
Thank you to all of our hosts, everyone we met, everyone who contributed to our experiences.
And thank you Ben, Megan & Julia. It was hard but we did it. Our second, and probably last big holiday as our “new family unit”. I wish it were not so. And I am glad I still have you for just this little bit longer.
I love you all.