MILTON, MA — Now that we have suffered through the winter of our discontent (particularly those of us who live in New England) the arrival of Memorial Day signaled the "unofficial" start of summer. Many families will use the next few weekends to drive to the summer cottage to prepare for the real vacation that will come after school ends, or perhaps just to get out in the warm weather (except if you live in New England) and visit local attractions.
As the father of four, and a hardened veteran of summer travel, I would like to offer a few tips to those of you who may be travelling with children for the first time this year.
The first thing you must learn, and accept, is that no matter how hard you try, or how much you plan, you will not leave at the appointed departure hour. Never. In fact, the whole idea of actually having a departure time on a family trip (As in "Okay everybody, we're leaving tomorrow morning bright and early at 7:30!") is as ludicrious as trying to calculate the exact moment the Big Bang occurred.
In our house, we always plan for at least three departures. The first one will be delayed when someone's favorite toy cannot be found, and we spend half-an-hour looking for it in the house only to discover it's already in the car under the left-over Macdonald's bag. The second departure time will be delayed by one of the following: we forgot to load the baby stroller, we forgot to get milk for the baby's bottle, we forgot diapers and wet cloths, or we forgot the baby.
We're now at T-plus 90 minutes and counting, and approaching the third departure. By now, we're all in the car, seatbelts fastened, music playing, ready for our family outing. We back out of the driveway, start merrily down the road. We go exactly one block, pumped up for our trip ... and then turn around, because we realize that we've done something foolish like leave the complete works of Proust sitting on top of the burner we forgot to turn off.
Finally, we're on the road. Now comes the most difficult part of the journey - actually reaching the destination. This is not as easy as it might first appear. For instance, last weekend, my family and I decided to visit Mystic Seaport, about an hour and 45 minutes from my home south of Boston. Now, I say an hour and 45 minutes the same way I might say "One day we'll journey to the sun." Both statements are physical impossibilities. Why? Because no family with two or more children can travel a distance of roughly 100 miles in less than four hours.
First, there's food. Children who won't eat their breakfasts before you leave immediately become ravinous the moment they enter a car. Plan on 30-60 minutes for at least one food stop. Then there's bathroom breaks. Add at least another 30 minutes for that. Plus you'll need to add an additional 20 minutes to account for the time you'll spend actually trying to find a bathroom. (Personal peeve - road signs that sign 'Food' or 'Gas' etc. available at the next exit, leading you to believe that they are just off the exit. In fact, you have to drive 20 minutes on two-lane roads just to find them on the other side of some small town that looks like it was built for a Stephen King movie.)
Then there is IT. You must always be ready for IT to happen. I'm not going to explain what IT is (this is a family website after all) except to say that if you want to prevent IT from happening, there are certain rules you must obey.
Rule number one - do not give young children milk to drink before starting on a long drive in a warm car. Milk and warm cars in a little tummy go together about as well as rocket fuel and a match, if you catch my drift, with somewhat similar results, albeit on a smaller scale. Chocolate milk and warm cars is an even more dangerous combination. Trust me on this one, okay.
Rule number two, if your child says that IT is about to happen, believe them and pull over to the side of the road as quickly as you can without causing an accident. Any idea that you can 'jolly' little Johnny or Jane out of IT is nothing but horribly misplaced parental egotism.
Finally we arrived, intent on spending a fun-filled day together at a genuine replica of a 19th century American seaport, where we enjoyed family-oriented activities like stopping my children from sticking their fingers in various pieces of ancient machinery. Or explaining to my son why it's wrong to hold his little sister upside down over the side of the wharf, even if she wanted him to do it. Or learning that my oldest daughter had lost her 'favoritest' toy in the whole world (which she had gotten in a Happy Meal a hour before), then retracing our exact steps, only to have her realize a frantic hour later that it was 'in her other hand.'
After an exhausting day, it's back into the car, where you and your wife 'debate' who'll drive home and who'll get to take a nap. Then on the drive back, with everyone fast asleep, you can quietly turn on the Red Sox game, forget all about the weird stuff of the day, realize what a great bunch of kids you have and and think, "We've got to do this again soon."