My family has just returned from a week of vacation.
It started-and ended-with a 17-hour car drive. The trek from Brattleboro to northern Illinois can be done in one shot. But you must stop only to fill up gas tanks and stomachs -- and limit all liquid intake by all travelers.
This year, my husband stayed home at the last minute with an injured dog, and my sister and 19-month-old niece joined us. So the Yukon held six passengers: two adults, a high school freshman, a seventh-grader, a third-grader and a toddler. Nothing says "family vacation" more than large SUV’s rolling along I-90 with bicycles strapped on the back, the plastic fringe on the handlebars flying in the breeze, and pillows smashed up against each window you see as you pass.
I would love to tell you that the drive was filled with stops at historical markers, museums and the like. But we only passed one historical marker -- and there are no signs posted far enough ahead. The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, N.Y., closed at 3 p.m., on Sunday, and we were passing through at 2:45 p.m.
While we sisters mostly chatted and listened to the radio, the kids read some, played on their Kindles and watched movies. Even the 19-month-old is scarily adept at pushing the right buttons on her mother’s Kindle to play her music-and loudly at that! We did force the kids to look up to appreciate glorious Midwestern sunsets, lightning shows in Indiana, fireworks in Pennsylvania, scenic vistas in New York, 100-mile-views in Vermont.
Our stops included laser tag and a rope climbing course at Destiny Mall in Syracuse ... biking along Lake Erie and Lake Onondaga ... visiting Notre Dame University ... swimming at hotel pools ... some shopping for clothes.
Our visit in Illinois focused on the Winnebago County Fair. This was the climax of our summer when we were kids, where we showed our dairy cows and calves, where we were judged on our cooking and sewing 4-H projects, and where we presented our best flower arrangements and photography exhibits.
Now, we proudly watch our Illinois-based nieces as they carry on the same tradition -- and as we don’t have cows now, we visit the rabbit and poultry barns.
Of course, it’s clear that "family" vacations are all about family. The youngest three cousins piled into the bathtub together every night. The oldest ones milked and fed cows and baby calves, and rode four-wheelers out into the pasture. The middle ones rode bikes all around the farm. Extended family joined us all for supper. One aunt took all the kids to the rodeo. Gramma got lots of hugs and snuggles from all the kids. Aunts and older cousins carried around the littler ones, and the littlest one learned how to say new words daily. (Her most impressive gain was "Jee-ll", her version of my name!)
All in all, it was an exhausting, but good, vacation. It was planned around the needs of the younger family members, with the adults adjusting their schedules and plans accordingly. We two East Coast-based sisters never did get our haircut.
Now home, I’ve been catching up on the newspapers and mail. A letter from our youngest daughter’s elementary school principal awaited us. It was chuck-full of information, all very good-to-know stuff. The end held the kicker, though: "The last thing I want to mention is Summer Learning Loss. [Yes, it was all capitalized.] Learners who are not mentally active and engaged will lose several months of academic gains over the course of the summer ..."
No less than six -- SIX!! -- articles have bombarded me with dire warnings about "summer learning loss." One of them was promoting the idea of year-round school to avoid this. All of them seemed to assume that every summer vacation included many educational visits.
But our trip was not planned for summer learning. Honestly, my sister and I had organized the travel mostly around the 19-month-old’s needs. (What’s four or five hours from Brattleboro? Syracuse. What’s there to do there? OK, let’s go to a mall where the older ones can play on a rope course, and she can run free safely.)
I feel somewhat guilty about all those hours in the car with the screens. Surely, I could have done a better job of engaging them. I am certain our father would have planned better to get to that Erie Canal Museum. He would have seen the sign (was there one?) about the historical marker -- we never once-ever-passed those as kids. There truly are some fascinating things to learn on those! I know our parents would have made us read the maps, as my sister was. Instead, my sons are much faster than I am at entering the addresses into the GPS and have grown up thinking that this is the "normal" way of traveling. I should have forced more reading, more games of finding things out the windows. ... And did my sisters and I ever really bicker as much as these siblings can?
At the same time, I resolutely hold firm to the idea that a summer vacation where the point was to "be on vacation" was time well spent. As the kids recounted their Illinois time to their father, I was gratified to hear that they agreed.
The oldest summed his vacation up for Dad: "I liked just spending time with family. We don’t see them that often. And going to the fair. I really like that."
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.