I was three when they took us to Sonesta Beach. Grown-up in my orange bikini, I was sorely offended when the lifeguard wouldn’t let me leave the steps of the pool, despite the matching orange-floaty arm bands.
I remember the sun and the heat and the sand. I remember making earrings for mom with the other children at the hotel. Mine had birds, mother-of-pearl; Bobby’s had seashells and blue. She kept them – even now one tiny bird remains in the jewelry box that was hers.
The memories stop there. I was so small, but despite the lack of detail, they are pleasant and happy.
Later, I remember Catalina. I was in grade school by then. We stayed in a condo and walked into town every day, past giant bougainvillea spilling over red tile roofs. So large and glorious, they looked as if they owned the island.
We toured the back country in golf carts, ogled the buffalo, eating seafood and waffle cones as we wandered past tile shops and souvenirs. The casino, that glorious old dame, still dripping in her art nouveau finery, watching over the harbor.
I remember snorkeling in the harbor, over the side of a rented rowboat. Gritting teeth against the Pacific cold, and swimming alone towards the rocky beach. The sudden shift of a warm current frightened me – I imagined a giant warm-blooded fish just beyond the tips of my flippers as I flapped towards shore.
I remember feeling independent, grown up. At peace with myself and with my family.
Vacations always brought my brother and I together. Nearly five years separating us, I was in elementary, he in high school; we had little in common in our day-to-day lives. But on vacation, we allied. “As long as you stay together.” It was our ticket to freedom. We’d wander alone down tiny lanes and to the ice cream shops in town. To the beach for a swim. He couldn’t go without me – he needed me as much as I needed him, and together we would explore.
Another year and it was Hawaii. Our alliance even stronger now – Bob was in college and I, in high school – we left the uncoolness of our romantically inclined parents to hang out in the lobby in the evening, escaping. He watched the pretty girls, I scouted for cute boys – we neither of us met anyone but we felt the camaraderie of independence.
When our parents were tired and wanted to go back to the room, we would stay at the pool or the beach and return later. They trusted us together, and we, for the most part, lived up to that trust.
In the Bahamas we spent one, long, sun-burnt day in a cove off our island, doing nothing but floating, face-down, gazing through masks into the Nemo-world just a few feet below. We played with sea urchins – we named one Fred. He was inky purple, and exquisite, with millions of tentacles like strands of hair, pulling and rolling his needles across our palm. We found his relative, am empty shell, and named him Fred is Dead. We laughed and sang silly songs and pulled our lounge chairs into the breaking edge of the waves. We were equal there, despite our ages.
There were other trips, other islands, and Europe…we didn’t travel in style, but we were together and these vacations form the bedrock of some of our happiest years as a family and some of our best family lore.
Shauna Niequist, in Cold Tangerines, writes
“Vacations are more han vacations, and that island is more than an island. Vacations are the act of grabbing minutes and hours and days with both hands, stealing against the inevitability of time. There will be a day when our family as we know it will no longer exist, and I want to know in that moment that I wasn’t in the office or doing the dishes when I could have been walking on the dock with my dad, when I could have been drinking tea and eating ginger cookies on the porch with my mom. I don’t want to be building my bank account or my abs or my dream house when I could be dancing with Aaron at the beach bar on New Year’s Eve, when I could be making crackers and cheese for dinner because we were on the boat till way after the shops closed, sunburnt and sandy and windblown, and happier there and together than anywhere else with anyone else.”
One day, about 15 years ago, our family as we all knew it was gone – but the memories and the happy remain… “a whole lotta happy” is left over from those trips that my parents scrimped and saved up for. Truly, on those shimmering beaches or sitting on an ancient stone veranda in France, feeling grown-up when I wasn’t, exercising independence I didn’t yet deserve, and forging alliances with a brother who, on the mainland, thought me little more than a bother, we were “happier there and together than anywhere else with anyone else.”