A couple of years ago, the night before we were supposed to leave on our annual beach trip, I nervously drove myself to an urgent care clinic. I’d been coughing for a few days and running a fever, but as I struggled to catch my breath lugging baskets of laundry up our stairs, I had an intuitive inkling that something wasn’t right.
A nurse confided that I looked “terrible” and suggested a chest X-ray. She scanned the shadowy films and tut-tutted at me. “You need to wait for the doctor to talk to you, but you’re going to be verrrry glad you came in tonight,” she said knowingly.
The X-rays showed I had pneumonia.
I explained to the doctor that we were supposed to be leaving on a long-planned week’s vacation. Could I still go?
“Well, where are you headed?” she asked. “Someplace you’re going to be very active, like Disneyland?”
No, no, I told her. We were about to spend a week in an Outer Banks rental house with my husband’s family.
She looked at me and asked the question every mother longs to hear. “Do you think you can do nothing but lie on the beach with a book and relax for a week?” she asked with utter earnestness. “That means no cooking. No cleaning. You really need to take it easy if you want to get better.”
Lie on the beach with a book for a week? Uh, no problem, Doc. I think I got this one. Could you write that down on a prescription pad?
The doctor had no idea that she had unwittingly hit on a hot-button issue for me. I find the world of vacations very thorny. Lying on the beach with a book and doing absolutely nothing? That’s a vacation I can get behind. Museums and anything vaguely educational I understand. But in truth, places like Disneyland—places designed for people to do nothing but have fun—actually terrify me. Rides make me incredibly anxious. Water slides? Uhhh…no. I don’t know how to ski or surf or hang-glide or climb mountains. I can kinda sorta be down with hiking because, well, isn’t it really just walking? But the world of pure amusement is an utter mystery to me.
I know, I know. The First World-iest of First World problems. But let me just say I come by this weirdness honestly.
Let me back up for a moment. I come from a family steeped in lore. And in the Mendelsohn family mythology, few stories loom as large as that of The Ocean City Vacation. It was August of 1967. And my parents packed my four brothers into their trusty Chevy station wagon—I didn’t make my debut until the following fall—and drove to Ocean City for a few days, to join friends who lived outside of D.C.
The story looms large not because of any terrible mishap that happened along the way, or because of a run-in with a famous person. It’s not that it coincided with an important historical moment, unless you include the airing of the final episode of the TV show “The Fugitive,” which my brother Andrew fell asleep and missed, much to his chagrin. It looms large because it was, in our family’s entire history, the only time we ever went on a family vacation. (Cue the youngest kid stomp-fest: I ALWAYS MISS ALL THE GOOD STUFF!)
We lived an otherwise unremarkable, middle-class lifestyle. My father was a research scientist for an aerospace company. My mother, a teacher, stayed at home full-time until I was in high school. We wanted for nothing truly crucial. We traveled occasionally as a family, but always, it seemed, to the brisket-scented homes of elderly relatives, and never to anything even remotely resembling a ski lodge or the Magic Kingdom. With five kids to keep in sneakers and braces and college educations, going someplace just for fun was pretty low on the agenda.
In retrospect, I think it was less about money than it was about leisure. My parents simply weren’t idle types. Both the children of hard-working Eastern European immigrants, they weren’t particularly comfortable indulging the urge to be unproductive. Neither had any particular interest in seeing the world. I would always look at the tanned faces of other kids at school after Christmas vacation with a mix of envy and wonder. You just…went to a hotel in the Caribbean? Just…because?
Now that I’m the parent, though, I’m determined that my kids’ experience will be different than mine. We’ve dutifully taken them to plenty of fun places “just because,” places like Great Wolf Lodge (Oh, the humanity!) and Hersheypark, where I politely declined to ride the roller coaster that begins with riders on their backs, in roughly the exact position of an astronaut about to launch into space. And while I’m still a Disney holdout, this past Christmas, we officially took our first major family vacation, just the four of us on an impromptu jaunt to a paradisiacal resort in Puerto Rico. Just…because.
It was every bit as wonderfully indulgent as I imagined. My older son went down a water slide so tall it gave me hives just to look at it, but there was no denying the joy on his face when he popped back up out of the water, triumphant. My kids were the ones who came back from Christmas break with those tans I always marveled at.
But while lying on a raft in the Puerto Rican sunshine, I came to the very important revelation that in the great water park of life, I’ll always be a lazy river kind of girl. And I’m OK with that. Just let me sit with a book and do nothing. I’ll happily look up and wave as my boys go squealing down the slide.
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”