Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Stories that Stick

A few friends with young children recently experienced the most magical of all spring vacations: a trip to Disney World.

Oh, my absolute envy. If I could, I'd make a pilgrimage to that Mecca of the Mouse every single year. My own Disney trips with my children evoke such exciting, heartwarming memories. Except... honestly... even as my mind races to recall these vacations, I remember very little. Neither do my two grown sons.

The passing of time is only partly to blame. I think the real reason these memories are vague is because the trips were perfectly pleasant--and not blemished by any tiny disasters.

And seriously: What fun is perfection?

Of the twenty or so vacations my sons and I have taken together, the one we remember most fondly is the Spring Break from Hell.

My sister DC is to thank--or to fault--for this. (She's at fault for much in my life, including my Barbie's fall from grace to a pin-pricked voodoo doll.) A few years ago, DC craved a last-minute escape from the harsh spring of Ohio. She booked a trip with her daughter to the only southern destination available through her time-share trade. With no plans ourselves, my boys and I joined them.

None of us can name the tiny mid-state Alabama town where we landed. I doubt it even exists on a U.S. map. What we haven't forgotten is desperately biding our time by renting dozens of movies from a video store where the clerk told us the nearby Walmart was the hub--nay, the heart--of the entire county. (We spent the next day there, and she was spot-on. Everyone who isn't anyone was there.) What we also remember is eating Easter dinner at a barbecue buffet where shoes appeared optional. And as far as our escaping to the sunny south? One needed a parka, which none of us packed, to venture outside at all. (We did so anyway. But we did wear shoes. With socks.)

A freaking catastrophe of a trip. But looking back at it now? Best. Vacation. Ever.

That experience was much like my other favorite vacation memories.

Of all my college-era camping trips, just one clear memory remains: the weekend thwarted by such a downpour that we slept in our cars and spent our waking hours huddled under a dense stand of trees. (Yes, lightening struck all around us, but we were young; beer trumped common sense.) Ravenous, we eyed our rations: potato chips and a pack of hot dogs. My friend John (rest in peace, Mr. Burgermeister) pulled out a paperback he was reading. He speared it with a stick and lit it afire with his Zippo. We shielded ourselves from the storm and singed our hot dogs over the sputtering flames. "It wasn't a very good book anyway," he said with a shrug.

I remember nothing about another camping trip my sisters and I took to Assateague Island in the eighties, except the part where the wild ponies knocked down our tent as we slept inside.

On a recent trip to New York City, two friends and I dined at world-renowned restaurants and saw a terrific Broadway show. So what do we recall when we discuss this trip? We talk about the drive home through the mountains when one of us had the highly unfortunate experience of needing to go to the bathroom---pronto--without a rest stop or exit for miles. We laughed, she cried, she crossed her legs. Oh, what memories our sadistic potty humor made during that single half-hour (which seemed likely seemed a century to her).

These are the stories that stick in our lives. What we recall forever are seldom the most perfectly executed experiences. Our best memories tend to be those moments that catch us off-guard. The little calamities. The lamented misfortune that at the time makes us hang our heads and yet weeks, or even years later, prompts us to turn to each other, grin and say, "Oh my God, remember that?"

If we want to collect a lifetime of happy memories, maybe what we need is a little bad luck.

I'm hoping to get seriously lost on my next road trip. To face nightmarish weather that causes me to alter my carefully planned agenda. To experience some tiny disaster that turns the vacation of my dreams into the trip from hell.

Oh, the horror I'll endure!

And later, I'll inevitably smile and think, damn, was that fun.

Any vacation catastrophes to share? Low points in your life that somehow became high points? Want more details on how you, too, can spend your spring vacation at an Alabama Walmart?


  1. Sherry,
    Until reading this it had never occurred to me and I ruminate about everything. This is SO true.
    The best part of our Disney trip was when this ridiculous storm came through, tornado warnings the whole nine, and we played charades, basketball (in our room) and then went outside in the weakening storm to see how far around the perimeter we could get without getting wet. That I will remember always.
    Thank you for pointing it out.

  2. When Johnny was 2 we went to Disney. He wanted to get off the Peter Pan (?) ride by himself but I lifted him out of the car because we were in a hurry. He proceeded to lay flat on the platform like a rug and throw a temper tantrum in front of the millions, well it seemed that way, waiting to ride. Oh the horror of it all. Amy and I still talk about our night in a Mississippi mosquito ridden motel, with the tent spread out across the furniture to dry. The woman who checked us in thought we had "fellas" with us and kept eying us and our car suspiciously. One of the best stories of the whole trip.

  3. Lyra: Rainy vacation days do force you to get creative like that. I can't tell you the last time I played charades! And you bend the golden rule about "no playing ball in the house" when it's just a hotel room that might get trashed...

    Julie: I always guessed you and Amy were closet hussies.

  4. Potty humor is my favorite. I can't help it. It just IS. Makes me laugh so hard, I cry....

  5. I had a raging case of tonsillitis while traveling through Europe. I still remember trying to enjoy champagne and fondue with my boyfriend in Switzerland and crying because I couldn't bear the pain. He had to drink an entire bottle of champagne and eat all the fondue (okay, maybe it wasn't that bad for him).

    I ended up in an emergency room in Germany, where the doctors made fun of me without realizing I knew enough German to understand them. Finally, salvation came in Italy when a fabulous doctor paid a house call to our hotel room and gave me a shot of steroids. The whole thing cost me 50 bucks and I still love that little old man to this day.

  6. Jody: I must admit I enjoy potty humor too, unless I'm the butt of the joke. (Pun not originally intended but surely appropriate.)

    Laura: Oh, that one's truly horrific! And you've given me a new fear about international travel: people making fun of me in another language...

  7. I once picked up a dear friend from the airport after she'd gone on holiday with another friend. When I asked her how the trip had been she said, "It wasn't horrible" and then proceeded to tell me just HOW horrible it had been. That became our new understatement for anything bad "It wasn't horrible".

  8. Downith: Hahaha! I love that! I'm stealing it, OK?

  9. Cut my finger on a tuna fish can while visiting Graceland. I was all prepared to channel Elvis. It really sucked I had to be dragged to the ER instead.

  10. Love this thought: "Our best memories tend to be those moments that catch us off-guard." It's true, most of the stories we share are about things that somehow went wrong. :-0

  11. MSB: Bummer. You must have been staying at the Heartbreak Hotel.

    Paul: It does, doesn't it? And not just vacations. Guess that's one of the things which keeps life interesting...

  12. The best part of our vacation in March was on our layover in Atlanta when I leaned over to my husband and said, "hey, know what? we didn't receive our cruise documents. Don't we usually get luggage tags or something?"

    A quick call to Royal Caribbean confirmed they'd sold our cabin...weeks ago...And my house was clean, and people were watching my kids for 8 days, and everybody had a ride to sports practice, and I had new clothes in my suitcase.

    The other best part was Carolina losing to Duke in the ACC Championship which made me storm out of the bar in the Ft. Lauderdale airport early to go get our luggage. My husband saw a rep from Carnival and 15 minutes later we were on a
    bus to a Carnival ship not even knowing where it
    was going.

    And Carolina did go farther than Duke in the NCAA tournament. . just sayin..

    My favorite Disney moment was when they took my son out of line after an hour wait for the roller coaster and he was tall enough by a hair and he put his fists in the air with a "yesss!" and everybody clapped.

    Great post, Sherry.
    Good times :)

  13. Julie: "Don't we usually get luggage tags or something?" Yikes--what a frozen-faced moment of horror! So where WAS your new ship headed? Hope for your sake it wasn't Durham, NC...

  14. Too many stories to tell here, but I can say with authority it was a great decision to take a lesser engagement ring and an affordable apartment so the husband and I could spend our meager income on travel. We’re still laughing about our adventures after 20+ years and I suppose we will be when we are toothless and rocking on the back deck.

  15. Deb: I agree--wise decision. Life is meant for adventures!

  16. The "and later I'll smirk and think, Damn That Was Fun!" sounds like exactly the right frame of mind to me. It's always that crazy stuff that happens that you remember most later, that you tell stories about, that become the "Mom! Remember when ...." Those "remember when's" are rarely the stuff that goes according to plan.

    I'm all for falling off the grid.

  17. The best stories all come from shared pain. Who cares about the time everything went right and the vacation was exactly the way we expected it?

  18. Ah Disney vacations. Once we waited out a tornado in a 7-Eleven with the owner wailing that we were all going to die, good times man, good times...

  19. Teri: Yes, kids are great at this. I sometimes wonder why we work so hard at creating happy memories for them when it's the off-the-grid stuff they tend to remember anyway.

    Bluz: I hadn't looked at it from that perspective, but I agree the "shared pain" is a big part of it. It's the only type of pain which can be shared and later laughed about.

    Bobbi: And I complained about biding my time in a Walmart? Did the dying clerk at least tell you to help yourself to the Slurpee machine (or the cheap wine)?

  20. This is so funny and so true. The two drives I most remember as an adult was the one from Mississippi back home to Illinois when MathMan and I were in the process of getting separated. That was a fun ride. The other was a business trip. I was driving with my favorite AARP volunteer when I become suddenly, violently ill and had to pull over. Right there in front of this lovely man, I vomited and enjoyed a moment of explosive diarrhea. Very memorable for both of us.

  21. Lisa: Explosive diarrhea in the car? Excuse me for a few days while I try to spin something nostalgically fun about that...

  22. My sister and her husband came to visit when I lived in Germany. I was eight months pregnant, and all we seemed to do was hike up mountain after mountain to see the castles.

    There are no potties in castles, as it happens.

  23. Averil: Oh, my. You poor pregnant thing! And not a chamber pot to spare? Sorry, but I am simultaneously cringing and chuckling at the image of a very pregnant Averil attempting to squat in the woods...

  24. once on our way down 65South toward gulf shores (a couple hours past that walmart), my mom's best friend's car broke down. it was a two car caravan to the beach from louisville, kentucky. the car that broke down included my mom's best friend, her two kids, her sister and her sister's baby.

    our caprice classic (black, of course) had me, mom, and my 4 year old sister. it broke down in birmingham and the mechanic said the piece that was broken was going to take a couple days to replace. he said she could pick it up on her way back through at the end of vacation. she didn't have any money for a rental--it was the 80s--so everybody loaded into that caprice classic. as we pulled back onto 65 around 2:00 p.m. 100 degree weather the air conditioner in my mom's car went out...two seconds later, so did the electric windows. eight of us in a caprice classic (two adults, two kids in front, one adult, three kids in back) stuck in a car for four hours, sweating like we were on some demented game show.

    mom still bitches about that friend.