Boiled custard, warm cookies, and roasting marshmallows

We asked our kids the other day where they wanted to go for the family vacation next summer. We anticipated something like the beach, or Mexico, or maybe a theme park of some kind. Instead, the answer we got from all of them was “We want to go back to the mountains.”

As a family we have gone to the mountains many times for family vacation. We rent a cabin, cook our meals, roast marshmallows, and spend time doing various nature activities. We have done pretty much everything we can do up there, but we have realized that it’s not really the number of things we do or trying to come up with something different to do. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the fact that
we do them there, in the mountains, as a family.

Every Christmas around our house there are things that we do as a family. We decorate the tree as soon as we can get away with it. We play lots of Christmas music. We always have a jug of boiled custard in the fridge. And when we decorate the tree we make a party out of it, complete with lots of snacks, especially warm chocolate chip cookies.

For many years we have also put up our Christmas houses. You know, those little ceramic decorative displays that light up? It’s quite a chore to get all the boxes down, set them up, and get them all lit up. So this year we thought about not doing the houses. But our kids let us know real quick that we needed to do the houses.

My wife and I realized that this was one of things, like going to the mountains. You see to our kids, putting up the Christmas houses is part of who we are. Christmas isn’t Christmas unless we do that. We set aside time, all of us, to decorate the tree, listen to Christmas music, and eat warm cookies. It’s those little traditions that are just as important a part of our family as who our grandparents are.

Our children will look back on these years and cherish these little things that will forever be a part of what and who our family is. I imagine that even when all my children are gone I will still drag those Christmas houses out of the attic every year and put them up. Because when they come home for Christmas I want them to remember what it means to be a part of this family.

For vacation we will indeed be going to the mountains again this year. Board games, roasting marshmallows, and swimming in the streams is what I am pretty sure we will be doing. And I am more than ok with that. Because I want to honor all these memories that we have worked so hard to remain faithful to every year. It’s part of what it means to be in this family. And it’s part of who they are. And when they have a family of their own I just know that this little collection of memories we have collected for them will lead them to make their own special memories for their family.

And I can’t think of anything better to give them than that. Merry Christmas kids.

Blast From The Past: The Grab Bag

We just got back from our yearly family summer vacation (a cruise to Mexico), and we racked up another bushel of memories that make us all cringe and laugh. If your family is like mine, family summer vacations are watershed moments in our lives that we talk about for years.  As we rolled down the road this past week heading toward our week of adventure, we did what we always do. Someone in the van will say something like ‘Remember last year when…’.  Then we all have a good time laughing and poking fun at the unfortunate one of us who is the subject of said memory.

This year though I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before in years past.  Maybe it was present last year or the year before that, but this is the first time I noticed it.  I looked in the rear view mirror and saw all my kids buried in screens the entire trip.  Cellphones, computers, tablets, iPods, and DVD players. Every kid in the van had multiple screens of some variety and interacted with them the entire time. I don’t recall one time the entire trip when one of my children looked out the window and said ‘hey, look at that.’  I do remember however multiple times hearing complaints about having to share the limited power outlets scattered throughout the vehicle.

I then harkened back to the days of my own family vacations with my brother, mom and dad. To be fair, if I had owned back then all the amazing devices that are available to kids today, maybe I would have been buried in screens the entire time too. (Who am I kidding? Of course I would have. I was a geek before there was such a term.) But what I remember the most about our family vacations was the Grab Bag.

Maybe you had one too. In preparation for the trip, my mom would wrap little toys of all varieties and put them in a bag.  The Grab Bag. Each day of the trip we would get to reach into the bag and blindly grab one item, which we would then voraciously unwrap and pray that it was something cool. And that was it. One per day. Good or bad, cool or lame. We did get to pick the time that we reached in the bag, but only once per day. I don’t guess they make these things anymore, but my mom would buy toys that were meant to be used on road trips.  Like a little chess board that was magnetized so that the pieces didn’t fall off during the turns. Or maybe that ‘I spy’ game where you could check off items that you saw along the road and be the first to find them all.  Or if you were lucky, a mini telescope that you could use to look out the window at stuff along the side of the road. In fact, that’s what I remember most… looking outside the windows of the car at what was outside.

As I have written about before, we had that iconic station wagon that most families had back then, since there was no such thing as a minivan. And my parents drove that thing all over the country on those family vacations, from the Grand Canyon to Myrtle Beach.  I have seen many strange things and interesting places outside the windows of that station wagon. And that is my point. I was looking. Again, to be fair, that was pretty much all we had to do anyway besides beat on each other, but I can’t help but think that it is a metaphor for our lives today, specifically our children’s lives.

I think we spend too much time today focused inward instead of focused on the world around us, and I think it’s our duty as parents to make sure our kids spend time doing that. I have hope in this generation in that regard because I see that today’s kids have much more compassion and interest in the general well-being of others, much more so than we did as kids.  But I think that technology may be doing our kids a measure of harm by building bridges to other sides of the world while at the same time building walls between them and the world around them.

I am not naive enough to think that a Grab Bag would suffice my children today. The little plastic telescope can’t compete with Angry Birds or Facebook. Heck, even I would rather play Angry Birds. But maybe next time I’ll make everyone turn off the screens, at least for a little while, and play ‘I Spy’.  They will think I have lost my mind, I am sure, but my mom will be so proud. You were a genius, mom. Genius.

Spend Your Money On Memories

We just got back from the family vacation to the Great Smokey Mountains, and it has given me time to reflect on the whole family vacation experience.  I wrote a number of weeks ago about the whole saga of trying to figure out a way to get the whole family together for a summer vacation, and in truth this may be the last year that we get everyone together, and all my kids are still at home.  Sad, I know.  But we did it, had a great time, and now it’s time for me to do my fatherly duties (aside from making a video clip about it) and write about it.
Family vacation to the Smokey Mountains
We decided to stay in a cabin in the Great Smokey Mountains, in Gatlinburg, TN.  We have visited there many times before and our kids love it.  We take food and spend lots of time grilling out, playing games, watching movies, and generally bonding.  There is also a fair share of arguing, picking-on, pettiness, and rough-housing where someone ends up hurt.  But that’s part of it.

If you have ever been to Gatlinburg, then you know what it’s like there.  It is a fantastic place to experience real artisan craftsman making folk art and the like.  It has been that way for decades, but has over the past several years grown to more than that.  You have your typical tourist shops selling t-shirts and little plastic frogs, and the street hawker trying to sell you a trip to go see some bears or take a helicopter ride.  But the main reason we love going there is because my kids have lots of memories there, and they secretly crave what all kids love.  A chance to make some memories.

You see, what our kids talk about all the time are things like…’Do you remember when Evan got knocked out of the boat and almost drowned? That was so much fun!!’  Or maybe… ‘Remember that baby bear we saw when that mother bear was like getting ready to eat us?  That was awesome!’.  Yes, we like to live on the wild side as a family.  And that’s my point.

What my kids don’t talk about is the t-shirt they got, or the shark tooth in the little bottle that they just had to have.  What they talk about are the experiences we had together.  The white water rafting trip.  The horse-back riding.  The zip-line ride through the trees.  If you looked at the cost of some of those things, then you might pause and think about doing something a little cheaper.  But I don’t look at the cost so much.  I won’t remember the money, but I will remember the great time we had.

What I remember about my own family are things like… riding in the back of the station wagon on the way to the Grand Canyon, the dozens of campsites we stayed at, and skiing the Swiss Alps.  I don’t remember a single item that was ever purchased for me.  But I do remember skiing down the side of that mountain with my dad hot on my heels trying to keep up.

So when I say ‘no’ to my kids for the 100th time about wanting to buy that little plastic frog, I secretly smile inside.  Because I know that they will look back and remember the memories that we made together.  That’s what I spend my money on.


The Modern-Day Family Summer Vacation

So we sat down at the computer like we always do (my wife and I that is) to figure out which week we needed to block out for the family summer vacation. We did this about a month ago, at the beginning of March.  We are still trying to figure it out.

I remember back when I was kid, you know, back when my mom dressed me and my brother in large butterfly collars made out of polyester?  But I digress.  Another post for another day.  Anyway, way back then our family always took a summer vacation somewhere.  We had a monster station wagon, ala Chevy Chase’s Vacation, that we packed to the gills and drove all over the country.  The gulf coast, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest… everywhere.  For a couple years we hauled a pop-up camper and stopped at every KOA campground we could find.  Beanie weenies out of a can, roasted marshmallows, and mom’s ham sandwich on white bread.  Then a couple years later we got a small motor home, and we were really high-rollers. Man, that was the life.

Holt familyDon’t get me wrong, the thought of spending days traveling in a station wagon just to get to where I need to go seems like torture today.  But God bless my parents for having the constitution to put up with me and my brother cooped up in that wagon.  Because what it did was build a boatload of memories that we still talk about today.  And it instilled in me the importance of carving out at least 1 week a year to bond as a family. So every year we go somewhere.  Don’t hand me this ‘stay-cation’ crap either.  We need to get out of town and have some fun.

So I do my dad-ly duties and document the entire thing with pics and video so I can make a video clip after it’s over.  Then we have a family video premier of last summer’s vacation prior to leaving for this year’s summer vacation.  We then laugh and talk about what great fun (or not so fun) that we had last summer, and get pumped up for this year’s summer vacation. (you can watch some of the videos here by the way, if you are interested: my family Youtube channel)

Which brings me back around to the point of this post.  We can’t find a free week to go on vacation this year.  Sports camps, 4H camps, church camps and mission trips, conferences my wife and I have to attend… the summer is already gone.  The summers seem to be getting shorter, our kids are getting busier, and the days of the family vacation may be slipping away like so much morning mist.  Surely other families are having the same problem??

But I remain confident that we will find a way.  By golly, we may have to put our foot down and tell the kids they have to skip a camp or two, but we will go on a family vacation.  And this year we are gonna make them eat beanie weenies and crackers for at least one meal.  I’m so excited, I can’t stand it!

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