Posted by: Kate | September 28, 2008

Day Trippers

My family never had money.

It makes sense, thinking about it now: my parents were both 17 when I was born, and neither comes from affluent backgrounds, so the odds were against them from the start.  We lived in a series of apartments, not able to afford the down payment on a house until I was in high school.  We reused and recycled long before it was fashionable, back when “green” was a reference to Kermit the Frog or the avocado decor of certain appliances, because it was cheaper, and very often the options were for something to happen cheaply, or not to happen at all.  I have vivid memories of fishing through the couch cushions, looking for enough spare change to be able to buy eggs and milk, and I still wonder what my parents went without, in order to pay for my eighth-grade French class trip to Quebec City.

It was never a big deal, it was just how things were.  They both worked hard, and slowly advanced, and by the time my sisters were ready for class trips and school lunches, the funds were a little more readily available.  Not a lot more readily available, but a little.

Somehow, though, my parents always figured out ways to create vacations.  We never flew on an airplane as a family until I was in college – I flew, twice, with the high school marching band, and my mother had been sent on business trips with IBM, but I don’t think my father had ever been on a plane before 1992 – so our vacations were always closer to home, and of a more humble nature.  We tented, or stayed at my great-grandmother’s place in the Adirondacks, or we arranged to be home in time to sleep at night.  Most often this third choice, because of its price tag.

Despite our geographical limitations, we had adventures.  We took any number of day trips, to the Finger Lakes, to museums, to festivals and area events.  We would pack a picnic lunch before leaving the house, we brought a change of clothes “just in case,” and we never once visited a gift shop.  Those of you with a more frugal bent are likely all a-tingle at the concept, and it’s true that I was well-versed in the ways of frugality long before I had any idea that there might be another way to go through life.

So now, I look back, and have a fistful of memories.  There were trips to the zoo, in which we learned to take the less-traveled paths up above the regular exhibits to be able to find the wolves and badgers.  There were visits to the Apple Festival, in which we discovered – some by direct experience and others by observation – the dangers of a well-crafted apple wine on an empty stomach.  There were walks up Taughhannock Falls, learning to skip stones and feigning illiteracy while my father and I swam up to the base of the waterfall (“What ‘No Swimming’ signs?  I don’t see any signs.”).  It’s good stuff.

Willem’s background was, in a million ways, different from mine.  He did grow up with money, of the sort to casually buy sports equipment and fund hobbies like horse-riding and sword-collecting.  There were home-remodels, and then remodels of the remodels.  Affection was displayed in terms of gifts and dollar signs, and if gratitude was expressed, it took forms other than words and affection.

They took regular vacations to Europe and the Caribbean.  But when they weren’t embarking on large-scale, splashy excursions, they were each pursuing their own, separate interests.  Each of the boys had hockey, each of the parents had their own hobbies, and they rarely shared a day together as a family.  Certainly not with activities like walks in the woods or trips to the fair, something so completely removed from their separate priorities.

So it was that, somehow, despite the frugality and sparseness of my childhood, I am left feeling like I caught the better deal.  And I appreciate that, greatly, even while feel sorry for Willem that his family wasn’t able to put substance behind their other advantages in life.

And now here we are, parents, ourselves, and having to think about what sort of childhood memories we want our children to grow up with.  We’re not as affluent as Willem’s parents were, but we’re light years ahead of my own circumstances, so we have the ability to choose.  And this summer, we could have chosen to take one grand, large-scale, two-week-long adventure, someplace foreign and exotic.  Or, instead, we could have filled the weekends with smaller-scale adventures, day- and weekend-long trips, with time at home in-between.  (I know, I know, we could also have chosen to stay home altogether and save several thousand dollars, and this is where I deliberately take a step away from frugality and remember that you can’t take it with you and you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and sometimes it’s better to have a smaller savings account and a fatter scrapbook.)

We opted for the day-trip sort of approach this year, and we filled the summer with a variety of activities.  Tenting in Maine and again in New York, day trips to Boston, baseball games and local festivals.  All with the camera in hand, so that when we look back and recall the summer in a lightning-fast blur of sights and sounds, we’re able to sit down and page through the images to help put a sense of order to it all.

We sort of wrapped up our summer of little adventures yesterday, with a drive north to Bretton Woods, NH, for a trip up the side of Mount Washington on the Cog Railway.  It’s the sort of quaint, touristy thing that is easy to shrug off and ignore when you live within a few hours of it, but we saw it on a television program and reminded ourselves that the touristy bits of the area are just as worth visiting when you live there as when you’re traveling.

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The weather was horrible, sprinkling at the bottom, complete cloud cover (as in, being in the middle of a cloud) at the summit, and pouring for the whole drive home.  All of which added to the experience, made it that much more memorable and unique.  The kids were both well-behaved and happy throughout the day, and have been re-enacting bits of it in their play today.

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It’s good stuff, and reminds me to be grateful to my own parents for having their priorities in order when it came to raising kids, even if their priorities might occasionally have been skewed in other areas.  And I’m even grateful to Willem’s family, because their differing priorities have made it easier for me to articulate what’s important for me, as a parent.

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See?  Isn’t that much happier than a rambling post about illness and family loyalty and guilt?  That’s brewing, as well, and will likely come out in the next day or two, but for now, we’ll focus on the positive.

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Responses

  1. Sword collection? I love the photo of Willem & Emily! I hope that next year’s summer of adventures finds us meeting up somewhere!

  2. That’s beautiful, Kate. I really enjoyed it. I grew up in a similar way. Our only vacations involved camping. We had so much fun, I didn’t know at the time that we were “going without”.

    Beautiful pictures & beautiful you guys.

    You and your family are truly rich. 🙂

  3. We did LOTS and LOTS of camping on the beach in Mexico in the northern mountains fishing. Now it is expensive to go to the areas we spent so much time, they have become high end tourist resorts. We spent hours searching tide pools for sea creatures, watching the storms roll in offthe ocean and sittng by the fire pit at night with other families we met there and making lots and lots of memories. We never did exoctic or extravagant things (my parents also did not have a lot of money but they found ways that we could spend a day or two together.)
    You reall put things in perspective for me as I search for ways to fill our fall break. 🙂

  4. I did the same with mine when they were young, half out of frugality but more for the experience. We managed to go to the Royal Easter Show without having to enter the showbag hall (read moneypit) and took our own sandwiches because it’s nicer than food at tourist spots. I still love being a tourist in my own city and surrounds. It’s relatively cheap and there’s always something new to discover and you’re right, the benefits to family are immeasurable and many of the good things are free . .

  5. I love the picture of daddy and daughter!

    We’ve done lots of playing tourist in our own town this summer, visiting different pools and parks, and it’s been great fun and way less stressful than big trips.

    Our family didn’t do lots of big trips when I was growing up, but the ones we did take were always really special and I still have great memories of them.


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