The Family Vacation

Nayda Easley

Copyright 2018 by Nayda Easley


Photo of a rope swing over a river.

A few years ago I retired and decided to try some new things I loved but didn't have time for while I was working and raising a family. So, I set my hand at writing. (Raising five children, I certainly had enough material to work with.) There are other vacations my kids remember, but the vacation below is by far was the most memorable in my mind, plus the Missouri Ozarks is the most beautiful and fitting setting for any vacation. And I promise every bit of this story is the truth.

    In some future millennium, from the depths of a Utah tar pit, archaeologists will pull a perfectly preserved Toyota Highlander. Inside will be a family complete with luggage, toys, and junk food. A weary, downtrodden mother and father sit in the front seat, while the back holds three children poised at each other's throat. The archaeologists will scratch their head in wonder at what drove this family over the edge and into the pit but in the 21st century we know it as the ritual called "The Family Vacation!"

     Once a year parents pack the car beyond capacity, load up the kids, and travel hundreds of miles, enduring everything from carsickness to repetitive phrases ("I have to go to the bathroom John's looking at me again.") The dictionary defines vacation as "A holiday away from work for a period of leisure." I'm willing to bet whoever wrote that definition didn't have kids.

     Once, visiting my folks in the Missouri Ozarks, someone (my husband) decided a leisurely canoe trip down the Niangua River would be a good idea. Personally, I had doubts like why spend five hours paddling a canoe ten miles, when we could drive the distance in fifteen minutes never taking our eyes off the river once? But everyone seemed enthusiastic. Soon, even I was lured into believing a nice, lazy cruise down the river would be fun, so my husband, John Paul, rented three canoes. He, John Jr., and Jared were in the lead. Janell and Jodi occupied the next canoe. Jesse and I made up the caboose. I had to admit, it was beautiful. Trees lined both sides of the river forming a canopy which let the sunlight dapple the water making it sparkle. The only one with any apprehensions, (or perhaps premonitions) was six-year-old Jared, but after a few minutes of buoyancy, he was all in.

     The first challenge came when we pulled to the shore to eat lunch. I put my oar in the water to steer toward the bank, a reasonably simple maneuver, but nothing happened. I figured, maybe it's like riding a bike, so I learned a bit to my left and made two important discoveries: Canoes are not like bicycles, and the water was a lot colder than it looked.
     When I surfaced, Jesse was bobbing up and down in his life jacket, laughing gleefully - I was less enthusiastic. Then I noticed the world was suddenly out of focus and realized I had lost my glasses. Now to someone who's merely a little nearsighted, this might not have proved such a disaster, but being without my glasses puts me on par with Helen Keller. Everyone searched, but because of heavy rains, the water was too murky (which made me feel a whole lot better about swallowing a gallon of it.) As we ate our sandwiches, that luckily hadn't been in my canoe, the kids amused themselves by asking at least a hundred times, "How many fingers am I holding up now, Mom?"

     After lunch, we came upon a beautiful clearing with a rope swing that hung from a tree off a rocky bluff about twenty feet above the water. It was too tempting for the older kids to resist, so they climbed the cliff to try it out. A heart-stopping moment later, I saw nine-year-old Jesse scampering up the rocks. Let me explain that over the previous year, Jesse had single-handedly been responsible for an increase in our health insurance premium that rivaled the national debt. We'd been to the emergency room more times than Evel Knievel. His most recent escapade, two weeks earlier, had left him with a cast on his right arm, which didn't appear to be deterring him in any way at the moment.

          "But Dad, I can hold on with one hand!" he called down to us. Visions of his remaining three limbs in casts flashed through my mind. Evidently, those visions came to his father as well, because in a very persuasive tone he informed Jesse while he might be able to hang onto the rope, sitting in the canoe or any place else wouldn't be very comfortable if he didn't get down pretty quick. Jesse reluctantly descended, consoling himself by collecting rocks and catching frogs (which he crammed into his pockets as a surprise for me when I did laundry later.)

     While the kids played, we were joined by a group of about forty teenagers and fifteen adults also traveling on the river. Through casual conversation, we learned most of the group was from Germany and part of a cultural exchange program. The first half of the summer, teens from the United States had spent three weeks in Germany, and now these kids were hosting the German teens and some of their parents. As we resumed our journey, I thought how touching this exchange of cultural goodwill was so causing an international incident was the last thing on my mind. Nevertheless, as we rounded the bend in the river, I noticed the current picked up rapidly, and panic began to set in. "I can handle this," I told myself over and over. But the pep talk did nothing to convince me or the German man who was frantically waving his hands shouting, "Nein! Nein! Nein!" which, translated I think meant: "Stop, you dummy! You're going to crash into us!" And we did crash into them that is. Well, technically our canoe crashed into them. We had fallen out about ten seconds before. My husband was very encouraging during this episode. You could hear him laughing for a mile down the river. I made a mental note to check with our insurance agent when we got home to see if any new policies had been taken out on my life recently. The German man, now as wet and miserable as I was, kindly pulled our canoe to shore, dumped out the water, and helped us back in. With a little shove, we were once again on our way. I noticed the man from Germany waited until we were a good way downstream before he got back in his canoe.

     I believed the worst was behind me as we neared the end of our journey, but fate was not to be cheated. One last time Jesse and I were catapulted into the river. As I came to the surface, I saw the canoe, which by now I had decided was definitely possessed, gliding gracefully downstream into my husband's waiting arms. Not far behind, bobbed Jesse in his bright orange life jacket, an all too familiar sight on the water. With his free hand, my husband plucked Jesse out of the river and waited for me to catch up and retrieve the canoe. Watching John Paul managed to stay dry, even while fishing Jesse out of the water for the fourth time that day, did nothing for my morale.

     Two young men sharing the river saw my predicament and chivalrously offered to take me to where my husband waited. I admired these valiant young gentlemen but knew the minute I tried to get into their canoe, the three of us would end up in the river. So, I declined, (a courtesy I would not have extended to my husband had he offered at that particular moment.) Slowly I made my way downstream and crawled into the canoe one last time.

     Finally, as we rounded a bend in the river the reflection of about thirty aluminum canoes beached in the sun momentarily blinded the remaining vision I had left. Abounding joy filled my heart, and I suddenly knew how the crew of Columbus must have felt, only I was reasonably sure they hadn't spent most of their time in the water. As I dragged myself out of the canoe onto the bank, I was wet, cold, bruised, and bordering on blind. Before me stood my family, not one of them had fallen out of their canoe, except Jesse, (who I had insisted he ride with me because I didn't want him to get his cast wet.) The girls had amazed me the most. They had run into trees, over rocks, they had even crashed into another canoe, but not once did they tip over. They also managed to turn a ten-mile trip into twenty miles by zigzagging from shore to shore, thus getting the most for our money. Everyone was chattering happily, planning to make this a yearly event. "Not me!" I piped up, "Next year I'll sit this part out."

     "Oh, come on, Mom. It wouldn't be any fun if you didn't come along." Somehow the words "family entertainment" lose their appeal when they apply to you. The worst part was knowing we still had two weeks left on our vacation.

     So, why do we go through this madness, risking life and limb, maxing out our credit cards, creeping up to the edge of the tar pit? I think the comment I once heard a young man make sums it up nicely. For several years, his family had saved up enough money to do one of two things: either remodel the bathroom or take a skiing trip to Colorado. His father chose the trip to Colorado. The reason? He couldn't recall ever hearing a person reflect on what a great bathroom they had as a kid.

I grew up in Missouri, married the love of my life, moved to Louisiana, and together we raised five children. Now we're retired near Bear Lake Idaho and loving it. While writing had little to do with our business, I hope now to turn my hobby into something others might enjoy.  

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