It is Christmas morning in the early 1980’s. My older sister Chriss and I are in our long winter nightgowns and bedhead, surrounded by mint-green wrapping paper, halfway through the presents under the tree. Dad’s coffee is steaming in his hands, and Mom walks into the living room with Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and a stack of paper plates.
Fast-forward to Christmas morning 2020. Our three boys were halfway through the pile of presents under our tree, and Mom and Dad were opening their presents together at their house, and all of us had paper plates with Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. My sister’s teenagers were still sleeping, but when they woke up to open presents, Chriss preheated her oven and opened a can of cinnamon rolls too.
That $2.00 can of cinnamon rolls was a little ritual that we repeated every Christmas morning throughout my childhood, and the ritual endures. My mom had a handful of easy, inexpensive rituals she repeated year after year which we eagerly anticipated. They are part of the collective memory of childhood because my mom had a gift for making things special. Not fancy or elaborate, just special.
These are the small memory moments that remain because we did them over and over. But what about the Big Memories? The ones that take tons of time and resources to plan? The big memories from my childhood are mostly road trip vacations in our orange Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon. We took two huge road trips, in 1980 and 1987, planned in great detail by my mom.
For each day of driving, she made us a bag of activities, paper dolls and word searches. The back of the station wagon was a scene of Care Bears, white bread sandwiches, and singalongs to Oldies music. Mom recorded herself reading our favorite books and would pop in a cassette tape of her own voice to entertain us. (I’m sure that was just what Mom and Dad wanted to listen to on the road).
There was probably some bickering and crabbiness on those vacations, but all we remember is rock solid fun.
Because of the ages my kids are right now, we are feeling the pressure (in a good way) to make some big memories. In Jen Hatmakers book “For the Love,” she calls these the Family Years. The Family Years are between kindergarten and college, when everybody lives under the same roof. Someday, when one of my sons starts a story with “When I was a kid…,” these are the years he will remember, right now. They are 12, 10 and 7.
We have six more years until our oldest could take off for college. In four years, he may get a driver’s license and have a summer job. And his two brothers will follow right behind him. Before we know it, our kids will have big opinions about how they spend their days…but for now, they still ask us, “What are we going to do today?”
We look at their missing teeth and snow forts and baseball cards, say to each other, “This is it.” Let’s have some fun.
Last year, we dreamed of taking a big a National Park road trip out west, summer 2020. We wanted to visit Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. I had invested tons of time and energy and resources into planning this colossally complex trip. Because we are both feeling the “Family Years” pressure, we decided to go ahead with it, despite the challenges of doing anything during COVID-19 restrictions.
To date, this has been our biggest, best family memory. (Confirmed by both parents and all three boys).
I had previously never been to Yellowstone, or Grand Teton or Glacier National Park. Work was really busy for me, and there wasn’t a lot of discretionary time to sit around planning vacations. I bought a few guidebooks, and did some online searching, but it was arduous just to get started with a basic itinerary. How many days should we take to get there? Should we stop at sights along the way? How many days at each park? Should we stay in hotels or rent a camper?
It was taking me WAY too many hours to nail down dates and start booking accommodations. We didn’t even know how many vacation days we would need to accomplish the trip. Thankfully, two of my cousins saved my sanity. They had each taken a similar road trip with their kids in recent years, and they shared their itineraries and tips with me. What a huge help that was.
If you are looking to make the most of vacations during the family years, take a look at the Travel page on this site. I will share an itinerary and some other park details from this recent National Park trip, like my cousins did for me.
When you plan a family trip, whether basic or extravagant, you are building something that lasts, and your kids won’t forget. My sister and I still talk about hauling our pillows to the way-back of the orange station wagon, using the red and white tablecloth for a blanket late at night, and singing all the words to “Summer Nights” at the top of our voices. Chriss is still my very closest friend, due in part to the small rituals and big memories our parents built during our family years.
“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment, until it becomes a memory.”Dr. Suess
What is your favorite moment from a childhood family vacation? (Even better than posting an answer, dig up a photo of your station wagon and reminisce with your siblings. It’s good for the soul!)