At Seattle’s Pike Place Market, we found a shop that sold brightly colored lapel buttons featuring the individual members of the Beatles. I rallied the family and told everyone to pick out their favorite Beatle and to my surprise, everyone chose a different one.
T. (my wife and MOMC, aka Mother of My Children) had long laid claim to Paul Girl status and she has stuck with Macca even though he’s been the unfashionable Beatle in recent years. My brilliant, moody, third-wheel 16-year-old daughter has developed an affinity for brilliant, moody, third-wheel George. The youngest, being the family clown, went with Ringo, the band clown. I had already determined that I was going to choose which ever Beatle was left over rather than doubling back and choosing someone else had already picked. But I lucked out. Left out was vain, foot-in-mouth, drama queen John, who is, naturally, my favorite Beatle.
T. smirked as we were all affixing our buttons amidst the maelstrom of Pike Place Market. “Great,” she said, gesturing to my John button. “You’re the one who dies young.” “No,” I said, “I’m the one who ferociously loves his wife, and doesn’t care who knows it.” Talk about a save.
We all wore our individual Beatles buttons after that, and I took pleasure in the clean and easy symbolism of the act. It underlined the unaccustomed closeness of these crazy family road trips. Families are like that, we all know. You can run, but you can’t hide, goes the cliche. But on a family vacation, you can’t run nor hide. Long hours in the car, followed by dazed evenings sprawled on motel beds watching trash TV, punctuated by the actual stuff of the vacation. Making decisions, figuring out directions, tolerating cranky moods brought on by exhaustion and lack of decent food. If I didn’t love these people, I might kill them.
Of course, that’s the whole point and purpose of excursions like these. With teens in the house going about their increasingly complicated lives, it’s easy to feel that your blood kinfolk are merely temporary roommates. Parents know that vacations are bounding experiences and embrace them for that reason. Kids know that as well, and resist them for the very same reason.
Secretly, you sorta hope for bad or stressful experiences on a family vacation, so you’ll have a touchstone in years ahead to bring you back to this moment. If U.S. Customs, for instance, had, for whatever reason, decided that my 14-year-old Carlotta was on someone’s terrorist watch list and would not allow her back into the States, and if I, as dutiful dad, took a swing at a federal marshal as a result, sure it would have a supreme drag to be hauled into court by the Department of Homeland Security. But man, we would never stop referring to it.
Nothing like that has happened, at least so far. Instead, it’s been a series of compromises. T. and I, left to our own devices, might have worked in a hike in the Cascades somewhere along the way, but the kids, at this age, will have none of it. So, we go for the more tolerable tourist sites. At the site of Jimi Hendrix’s grave outside Seattle, I expound on the greatness of the man in the most excruciatingly music-nerd way, and yet I find some connection with my daughter who, as a gesture of reverence, leaves behind her iPod ear buds for Jimi. Later, I make a grand speech in the front seat, asking my audience their opinions on the most significant single event to happen in North America in the last. Eyes rolled so fast I’m surprised there was no sprained eyeball muscle. “Forget the petty activities of humans,” I say. “The most awesome event in centuries on this continent happened right over there,” at which point I gesture to Mount St. Helens as we approach. Watching a film of the volcano as it blew one day in May 1980, I couldn’t help feel a sense of terrifying awe, trying to imagine what it would feel like to be consumed in my own living room by an enormous wave of molten mud.
The girls hung out at the Visitors Center leaning over the railings, laughing at their parents and their dopey historical earnestness. The last trip we ever make as a family? Maybe. That’s sad in one way. But as I endure being the object of adolescent scorn for the umpteenth time contemplating Mount St. Helens, I think, it’s good in a way too.