When I was fourteen years old, I grudgingly endured my final family outing. My mother and father had planned a day trip to Chautauqua Lake (somehow my sister escaped the torment via a friend's invitation to do something fun). It was the tail end of summer - which was the beginning of the off season for events and attractions at the Chautauqua Institution ( a 300 acre historic community in Western New York which provides a summer residence for fine and performing artists). Without the small consolation of people watching the trip became more unbearable. My parents tried to engage me by pointing out the whimsical architecture of the cottages and storefronts nestled within the community. My father tried to break me with humor by standing underneath a sign which read 'Normal' and posing in a very non-normal stance with one hip up, butt out, and face twisted moronically. Because I was forced there against my will, I refused to acknowledge their attention. Instead I chose to sulk in the car for three hours while my parents and younger brother traipsed through the shuttered grounds.
Upon our return home, my mother, having been forced put up with my miserable countenance all day, announced that I was emancipated from family outings henceforth. I vowed aloud that I would never be so inconsiderate or unfair as to force my future teenage children to suffer through family excursions. What was the point? Once a teenager is set on being obstinate, it becomes family bondage not family bonding.
I was so adamant about being a compassionate parent- accepting and respectful of her child's developmentally appropriate need for freedom- I thought I would have been in tune with the subtle signs that my oldest son was outgrowing the fun of family pleasure trips. Our photographs from his final attendance at our annual excursion to the apple farm depicted the truth I could not see in real time. While the photos of his younger brother and sister captured images of children gleefully climbing apple trees and frolicking along the fence line chasing cows in the orchard, the images of First Born Son were a pictorial record of a child in utter torment. His face was drawn tight, eyes squinting to shut out the embarrassment of having to see us and be seen with us. His shoulders were high and stiff, turning his body into a splinter with the intent to prick us if we even stepped one foot into his body buffer zone. "It's too soon," I thought. "He's too young to want to be in any other county than the one where his family is merrymaking." But, he was only a few months younger than I had been when I brooded in the backseat of our car at the Chautauqua Institution-wishing for an assignment to a labor camp to keep from having my family forced upon me.
While we still always extend an invitation to the oldest child, his absence has become customary. With one child missing, we have become a family of six masquerading as a family of five. It felt all wrong at first. But, I will admit that our outings are more congenial without the low hanging cloud of a sullen teenager bearing down on us. And our relationship has become less strained from the decreasing number of battles fought.
Last Saturday, when we made our annual trek to the apple orchard, we lost another one. Henry sheepishly requested that he be allowed to stay behind due to a brewing Fall cold. Normally we would have postponed the trip. He was always such a willing participant who valued tradition and ceremony; we did not want him to feel excluded. I was surprised when he so bravely encouraged us between sickly sniffles to go without him, "I think I'll be fine." He paused thoughtfully, "Do I need to be there in order to eat the apples or drink the apple cider you bring home?" Of course not, dear sick child. "And will you still bring home a bag of their homemade caramel popcorn?" Yes, my most loyal son. "Well, then I definitely don't need to go anymore." Anymore? That was it?
We are now family of six who, while on outings, masquerades as a mother and father with only two, young female children. The sting of losing a second child has been quickly replaced with the exhilaration of dreaming up adventures that can be had with only two girls. Adventures that only require our Subaru sedan which comfortably transports the four of us instead of grumbling along in the SUV which seats 8 and never feels like enough room. Adventures which are less logistically challenging and which require less refereeing. Hooray for family togetherness!
I realize that these brief separations- these moments of freedom and independence we are granting the boys- are only just setting the stage, helping us prepare for the day when they decide to fly the coop. Even then, an invitation to join us for day trips will still be extended. And even then, we will make sure we have a vehicle which carries 6 passengers- just in case they all surprise us one day and take us up on our offer. Maybe we will venture to Chautauqua; and, maybe this time I'll actually experience it from outside of the car.