Have Children, Will Travel
In the patch of state fair zinnias outside our front door, I have been watching the bees hop from one bright blossom to another on these late summer evenings, the warm air drier than it was in high summer, a sure sign that autumn is collecting herself somewhere and soon to arrive in Ohio. Our family was like the bees this summer, hopping, or driving rather, from one colorful destination to another. In mid-June we went to Dayton, Ohio for my thirtieth high school reunion. Then, over the Fourth of July weekend, we drove to Northern Michigan where Jules had spent two weeks with his grandparents, having gotten there by Greyhound. A week later, I drove to Denver with Jules, Leif and Lyra. Ten days after returning from Denver, we left for Vermont and family camp at Karmê Chöling Shambhala Buddhist Meditation Center.
Busier than the past few summers, this one reminds me of all the summers before the long divorce with the older boys’ father when I frequently loaded the kids into the car and drove to far away places. Claude was three and Hugo just six months old on my first big road trip with multiple wee people. The three of us caravanned with a friend and her kids to the Great Smokey Mountains where the hiking was slow going, yet still fun, with a group of children all five and under. Hugo’s little face peered over my shoulder from the backpack I carried him in. When I bent forward to squeeze through a narrow passage in a cavern deep underground, Hugo’s poor little noggin smacked into a wall of rock. Hefty though he was, I carried Hugo in my arms for the rest of that subterranean tour.
“You must be crazy!” or “I could never do that!” people tell me now, as they have for decades, when they hear of the places I travel with small children and no other adult. I feel now, as I did then, that we were lucky. My work does not require me to be in one place. As long as I have access to a phone and Internet, I am able to manage most things from afar. But what they really mean, these astonished onlookers, is that they have no desire to travel alone with small children. If it is hard for small children to play contentedly in a house full of toys long enough for someone to make dinner, how on earth can they manage strapped into car seats for hours, sometimes days, at a time? Like anything, I respond, traveling well can be taught.
Training Up the Mama
A few months after taking them to the Smokies, I drove Claude and Hugo up to their grandma’s in Northern Michigan. Claude was three and Hugo nearly a year old—basically the same ages as Leif and Lyra are now. “The baby’s sad,” Claude repeatedly told me from his car seat in the back. So, holding the steering wheel with my left hand, I twisted my right arm upside down and stretched it into the back seat. My middle finger, nail side on his tongue, was in baby Hugo’s mouth. He would suck on it with incredible force, then intermittently breaking the suction with a loud POP of his lips before screaming. Again. And again.
I don’t think it can get any worse than this, I thought to myself. In those days, there were few exits, and even fewer with any businesses near the exits, once you crossed the Zilwaukee Bridge near Saginaw in the middle of the Michigan’s lower peninsula. I had no choice but to continue driving with my finger in the mouth of a baby behind my back whom I couldn’t even see. Taking inventory of myself, I was surprised to find I was calm.
If this is as bad as it gets, I can handle it.
We stopped at the first gas station I could find, a Sunoco surrounded by a field of tall grass where I spread out a blanket and nursed baby Hugo. The blades, heavy with seed, nodded in the wind. Hugo nursed until he was milk drunk while Claude chased the grasshoppers that fluttered around us like miniature helicopters, their wings sounding mechanical against the steady chirping of unseen crickets.
Training Up the Little People
This summer, 19-year-old Claude and 16-year-old Hugo both have jobs and had to stay home when we drove to their grandma’s for the Fourth of July weekend. Leif and Lyra sat in their age-appropriate car seats while Jules was in the way back seat of the van as we snaked down the state of Michigan in post-holiday traffic. Rarely driving more than 15 mph, bicycling would have been faster. At thirteen and a half hours, our trip home took nearly twice as long as usual. Lyra and Leif alternately slept and played until eight hours into the trip when, just as we were gunning to get to Ann Arbor for dinner, Lyra started to cry. Not a crabby cry, but a “Why are you doing this to me? I really can’t take it anymore!” kind of cry. Unlike the boys when they were babies, Lyra doesn’t suck my finger for comfort and nothing any of us did soothed her. Like all of us, she wanted out. I wanted to weep with her. When I pulled her out of her seat in the parking lot of a Macaroni Grill, I wiped her wet face with a tissue before lifting her to my shoulder. She nuzzled the bare skin where my neck meets my shoulder. I began nursing Lyra next to the van and walked into the restaurant with her at my breast. For everyone’s sake, we had a leisurely dinner and the little kiddos slept the rest of the way home.
The drives to Denver and back were the kind I try to avoid: endurance tests. With dates to keep at both ends of the trip, there was nothing leisurely about them. On the way there, Jules was my endlessly helpful assistant. He managed the audio books, handed things to Leif and Lyra and, when necessary, sat in the very back seat so that Lyra could look at his face. This was sometimes the only thing that comforted her. For a while anyway.
Max, who flew into Denver, drove back with us. His help in all things, as well as his company, improved our return trip. But it also meant we had to keep an intense pace in order to get him back to work in Cleveland.
The twelve-hour drive to Vermont should have seemed like a short jaunt compared to Denver. But before I even began packing for Karmê Chöling, I was already looking forward to when we would get home. “I can’t wait until I don’t have to pack and plan for any more trips!” I told Max.
Stopping the Madness or Removing the Japanese Beetles from Life
Living life by getting through things is no way to live. In fact, I would say it is not even living. Being present for all of life—the ups, the downs, the routine and even the dull days—is grace and something worth striving for.
And yet of all times, I found myself working to just get through family camp at a Buddhist meditation center. Clearly, it is time for us to be home and stay there. To continue rooting in our still new-ish home, as well as this family, only created in the past few years.
Along with the helpful bees in our bed of zinnias, I noticed the arrival of Japanese beetle with their beautifully iridescent exoskeletons–coppery-colored wing sheaths and heads the green of Robin Hood’s foresty get up. Exotically gorgeous, these coleopteras embedded themselves in the large zinnia blossoms, moving slowly like indulgent guests at a spa. Often they are found coupling in their petaled beds and, rather than go elsewhere to eat, they consume the very flowers upon which they’ve mated. Before we left for family camp, we set out Japanese beetle traps. When we returned, they were satisfyingly laden with the dead bugs. Not very Buddhist of me, perhaps. But I’m willing to accept a little dead bug karma in this case.
Instead of driving back from Karmê Chöling on the interstate through New York State, we took scenic Route 20. It took us longer, yes, but it brought welcomed sanity into our hectic summer. Along the way, Max and I talked about our need to circle the wagons. Not forever, but for the time being. And just as we’ve plucked the Japanese beetles from the garden, we must do the same with as many distractions, no matter how lovely or fun they may appear to be, as we can in our lives.
And so, we have decided not to travel more than two hours away (other than taking Claude back to the University of Michigan) for the next six months. Nor will we have extended houseguests for at least the next year (we’ve had four in the two years that we’ve lived in this house with the latest, Nancy, having transitioned to her own home at the end of July). And instead of driving 40 minutes away for Lyra’s various therapies, she is on a waiting list at Akron Children’s Hospital, which is five minutes from our home. We are even giving ourselves permission to stay home when there are performances, fundraisers and other events that we typically feel obligated to go and enjoy.
It feels liberating. Like taking back our lives.
On her birthday, I sent Lyra to daycare with her brother Leif. After all, she is a fifth kid and I hadn’t been home in two weeks.
That evening, I made a ratatouille with the fresh vegetables I had picked up that day from our CSA while Jules made lemon cupcakes from scratch. None of the boys had to work and were home to celebrate their sister’s birthday. Three of our dearest friends joined us including Vanessa, who is otherwise known as Lyra’s personal photographer. She brought a CD containing a slide show of Lyra’s birth, set to the Beatles song, “Here Comes the Sun.” Our home was full of our children and friends, all joyfully celebrating Lyra and this first year she has been with us.
It was also the last day Lyra was cross-eyed. She had surgery the following morning. More on that up next in “Lyra’s Latest: After Our First Year.”