Procedure: trans- plant five hu- mans from a four-bedroom home into one motel room for a week. Although this daring expe- riment has been called “going on vacation,” beha- vioral scientists have long referred to it as the family stress test.
Our first habitat on this summer’s jaunt to the Texas coast is deceptively pleasant. Who can knock a long, wide room with two double beds, a Cabela’s folding cot, a dresser, a closet, a table with two chairs, a balcony facing the Gulf of Mexico, and a bathroom?
A bathroom. That’s the first hitch. Long accustomed to three bathrooms, our family of mother, father, and three daughters ages twelve, ten, and seven, has to take turns. Often the girls establish their positions on the elevator going up.
“I’m first.” “I’m second.” “I’m third,” they shout too rapidly for my husband or me to get our bids in.
Baths and showers follow the same pattern. We spend almost two hours getting ready for breakfast.
More problems arise. Endless negotiations follow.
“It’s Elizabeth’s turn to sleep on the cot,” older sister Stephanie asserts. “Remember the last time I had to?” (That was last summer on our 600-mile trek to El Paso.)
Considering all the subsequent records on whose turn it is to sit in the front seat of the car, whose turn it is to listen to their favorite tape, whose turn it is to sit next to Mommy or Daddy in the restaurant, whose turn it is to watch the good TV in the den instead of the little one in the master bedroom or the one that squiggles in the playroom, no one remembers whose turn it is to sleep on the aluminum and nylon cot that creaks when you turn in your sleep.
Stephanie looks expectantly at Elizabeth, ready to pounce and brawl.
“Okay. I like the cot,” Elizabeth says. Crisis averted. Momentarily.
“I’m not sleeping with Stephanie on the bed,” Katherine, the eldest daughter, declares. “She kicks.”
An hour’s long discussion. Later. . .
“We’ll make a line down the middle of the bed with a folded sheet,” Katherine resolves. “If any part of your body crosses the line, I’ll hit it. Hard.”
With that, it’s time for dinner.
I’ve often wondered why we bother to take our children away from their local fast food eatery. Given a choice of fresh seafood served over the bay, the water lapping beneath their dangling legs, they clamor for franchised hamburgers.
The elders declare democracy’s demise, establish a benign dictatorship, and blissfully watch waves foaming to shore, seagulls swooping for food, and the colorful sunset. The children accept their fete, then quickly escape to video games deep within the restaurant’s interior.
Day one has ended.
Day two. “Let’s just stay here and swim at the pool,1’ cry the children, mysteriously unified. (Three years ago, when I had to peel them off the pool entrance and force them to see Montreal, I threatened to leave them at home with a babysitter who was old enough to drive them to our city’s indoor pool. They must have sensed a re-enactment of that decision.)
“All right,” they pouted. “We’ll go to the Elissa, but it can’t take long, and we want to go shopping and we want to eat at McDonald’s.”
The Elissa sways majestically in Galves-ton Bay, beautifully restored to recapture a sailing ship’s inherent romance.
Success. Our children are entranced.
They scamper through the crew’s quarters, across the deck to the captain’s quarters. They climb on stools to examine the ingeniously placed bunk beds. They marvel at the multicompartmented desks, the unexpected fireplace.
Our youngest doesn’t want to leave. Faced with inevitable departure, she begs for a return visit-tomorrow.
We retreat to a food store on The Strand, where we buy luncheon meats, a can of anchovies, and cream cheese. We add hard-crusted rolls from a French restaurant up the street and head back for a picnic in our room. The McDonald’s War is adjourned.
Living in close quarters magnifies buried resentments, but also forces their resolution. Our oldest can’t stay in her room, listening to her jam box or chatting on the phone. She can’t go off to the movies, or a friend’s house, or a local amusement park. She remembers how to talk to her parents, play with her sisters.
Our middle daughter can’t make an inflammatory comment and run to her room, slamming her door behind her. She can’t tease her younger sister away from the family until our youngest explodes in tears. She learns to share. And our youngest can’t secretly torment her older sisters and then come running to us, innocently demanding refuge. She learns to fight fairer.
My husband and I can’t hide behind our daily routine to avoid facing deeper issues. We sit on the balcony one night and talk about past and present anger, frustrated expectations, happier times. I go in to get a bedspread to wrap around myself, chilled by the gulf breezes-or the frigidly honest conversation.
We yell. I cry. We hold hands.
The children think we are getting a divorce. The balcony’s sliding glass door didn’t keep our conversation out of their ears. I wonder if there were other listeners on surrounding balconies. No matter. Privacy capitulates to understanding.
We enjoy each other after airing long-avoided problems.
The experiment continues in Houston. This time we are ensconced in a room half the size of the Galveston quarters. The hotel can’t find our reservations for two double beds. (No wonder. Later, we get a bill addressed to the Thireallos.) A kind clerk locates the last available room and offers us a king-size bed and a roll-away.
Procedure: reduce the living space. Remove the balcony. Force father, mother, and small child to sleep in one bed.
Youngest wets the bed for the first time in three years, but we survive. We have learned to negotiate. We settle a major argument.
We can’t wait to leave.
Last stop, Port Aransas. A cabin overlooking the bay. We share three rooms with friends, a family of four. Although the odds are against us-five children versus four adults-we manage. The adults take turns watching kids, fishing, reading alone.
Katherine and I talk. She tells me why she’s been angry at me for the past few months. It’s easier for me to listen here, on neutral territory.
Two days later, we return home. The house seems huge. We bask in its comforts, but our youngest wants someone to sleep with her. She misses our former closeness.
My mother used to resist vacations. “Why bother going away?” she would ask. “It’s the same me here or there.”
I disagree. Vacations reshape the soul.