In the weeks leading up to a recent trip I took to London with my four (mostly) grown children, the most common response I got from folks when I told them about our upcoming adventure was, “You’re taking all of them?”
“Yes,” I’d tell the nice people, “every bles-sed one of them.”
But I was never really sure what any of them meant by that question.
Maybe the trip seemed like a big financial undertaking for a single mom. Or maybe there are age limits for family vacations. Maybe it’s weird to want to take your kids – 24, 22, 19 and 14 (two of whom have graduated from college) – away on a trip. Like, to pay good money to spend time with them when you’d just spent so much on tuitions in an effort to get rid of them.
But it had been about seven years since we’d all gone away on vacation together. Right after the divorce I took the four kids to the Bahamas for a few days and honestly, the trip was a bit of a disaster. A snowstorm botched initial plans to leave and once we finally got there, the weather wasn’t much better than New Jersey. We were running around in bathing suits one day hopping on and off the resort’s lazy river, our teeth chattering and extremities covered in goosebumps, when I made a quick pit stop in the ladies room and found a cluster of little Bahamian girls standing there wearing puffy winter jackets.
Aside from a couple of jaunts to a friend’s house in Vermont for skiing and hiking, the five of us hadn’t traveled anywhere together in a long time. I’d taken various combinations of the kids places over the years but it had been on my bucket list to try to squeeze it in one more vacation en famille before it was too late. Before the older ones went off and started their own families or moved far away or joined the priesthood. Or the circus. Something like that. So when I downsized last year, I set aside a little nest egg for all of us to go away together somewhere special.
And it was the best money I ever spent.
I knew the kids would have been happy planting their butts on the beach of some all-inclusive resort in Mexico for a week, but I dreamed of going zip lining through the jungles of Costa Rica or channeling my inner Marcia Brady and riding a donkey down into the Grand Canyon or looking out over the City of Lights from the Eiffel Tower alongside those eight little eyes I made. I wanted to share with them the joy I got from traveling. From experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. I really wanted to give them an adventure and not just a vacation.
But either airfare was nuts or the season was wrong or the language barrier seemed way too daunting to go forward with any of those initial ideas. I already knew I’d play the role of tour guide for this vacation and didn’t need a foreign language to add to any stressful moments while getting us around. I don’t know about your family, but things can get tense for us when we all need to come together to make a decision. And if someone (read: me) needed to then find someone to parlez-vous anglais to help us make that decision, our family anxiety level would have ratcheted up to about a Level 12 out of a possible 10.
And, since I was thinking really big, the idea of going to London just came to me one morning while sitting on my couch at one with my laptop. I’d been across the proverbial pond a couple of times with the kids’ dad for really fast and fun weekends for his job and loved the city. But we’d never really done any hard-core touristy stuff. We’d seen some of the bigger sites but at that point in my life, I was just thrilled to get away from our four kids for a few days and have some fun. I never bought any guidebooks or read up on the history of the city. We just kind of walked around without an itinerary and did what we pleased. Since none of the kids had ever been to London, I thought it might make the perfect destination for our big adventure. Something we could discover together.
And it was.
We spent about five full days canvassing London between Christmas and New Year’s and it was exhausting and fun and probably the best vacation I’ve ever taken. Sure, it would have been way easier (and cheaper) to just take two or three of the kids still living at home. But it wouldn’t have been the same. I wanted something the whole family could experience. To create all those shared memories and maybe, just maybe, help bring us together after a bad divorce and that dark era I refer to as “The Teenaged Years” that fell upon our home for a good decade. I mean, I still have two teenagers but things seem to have lightened up a bit, which tells me either I’m getting really good at managing those surly beasts or I’ve developed an immunity to their poisonous ways.
Either way, our little family really needed some team building. We needed to feel a little less fractured.
So when I tentatively floated the idea in a text to the kids in September of going to London as a family Christmas present, they jumped all over it – especially the bigger kids. Bosses were consulted, time off was taken and in no time we were making plans about where to go and what to wear.
Okay, that’s not totally true. In reality, I literally stalked the Internet for weeks looking for cheap flights, a place to stay and researching all of the things there are to do with a family of big kids in London. I would send the children links (emails, please, texts from me can get so annoying) from time to time – attractions I thought might be fun or BuzzFeed lists of top places to eat – but no one really looked at them. In fact at one point I was told to “stop with all the links.” And really, that was fine because as much as I pretend to give the people in my life options, I really just do what I want to do anyway. So their indifference totally worked for me.
Unlike vacations of long ago, jaunts to Vermont or Disney World with sometimes cranky – often indifferent – children, traveling with big kids is an infinitely more satisfying experience. My kids were so into London and approached and executed each item on our pretty packed itinerary with enthusiasm and curiosity. No one complained about riding the tube, the hour-long wait to get into the Churchill War Rooms or the two-hour walking tour we took of Westminster Abbey (in fact, that information-packed trip turned out to be the highlight for my two daughters).
And I would be remiss right now if I didn’t extend a special thanks to my friends at Netflix whose perfectly-timed release of “The Crown,” which all of us (aside from the 14yo boy) gobbled up before the trip, helped bring so much insight to the history of the city and the royal monarchy as we toured all week. It was pretty thrilling to stand in the spot in Westminster Abbey where Queen Elizabeth was anointed during her coronation and later, over at the Tower of London, getting to see the jewel-laden crown she wore during that historic ceremony. Even better than my own fascination was seeing that same look of curiosity on my children’s faces. People, who wouldn’t pay to see that?
We departed the day after Christmas and returned New Year’s Day and I couldn’t think of any people I’d rather be with in London to celebrate the end of one year and beginning of another other than my four children (obviously, since Ryan Gosling is now married with two children of his own).
But seriously, all joking aside, it was probably the most glorious week of my life. I will forever treasure the memories I have tucked in the coziest spot of my brain of the kids seeing Big Ben for the first time as we rounded the corner atop our double-decker bus or watching all of them hustle to keep up with our Beefeater Yeoman Bob on our fun Tower of London tour. Best was sitting in our ride waiting to head back to Heathrow to fly home and my oldest jumping in the seat next to me, slamming the door closed behind him and turning to all of us to ask, “Okay guys, favorites?” and then he quickly answered himself, “Alright, I’ll start.”
This from a guy who sometimes seems to work overtime to appear annoyed by most things that involve me.
But my very favorite moment of the trip happened quite organically and was not one of the many carefully researched activities on our itinerary. On our final full day we were looking for a morning activity before things we had planned later in the day and my oldest suggested we try to get tickets to see an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum – about a 15-minute’s walk from our hotel – that we got shut out of a few days earlier. Called “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970,” the exhibition documents that counterculture era and ticket holders don headsets that magically know where you are standing as you wander through rooms packed with all sorts of fashion/psychedelic/rock-and-roll memorabilia.
We all put on our headsets and wandered off to explore and it wasn’t long before I lost sight of the kids while becoming engrossed with reading the handwritten lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and examining Mick Jagger’s grommet-studded jumpsuit. The exhibit was so jam-packed with stuff documenting the confluence of the music, fashion, political activism and drugs during that era that I was a little annoyed the kids had seemingly raced through it.Wasn’t sex-drugs-and rock ‘n roll the stuff of young people?
But then I rounded a corner and found myself in a big, darkened room dominated by a movie screen wrapped along three walls and on it were Sly and the Family Stone jamming to “Higher and Higher” at Woodstock and there, sitting together on the floor, were my four children. I slipped off my headset and squeezed in between them on the faux grass that I guess was supposed to make us feel like we were there, sitting in that New York field in the Summer of 1969, and let the music surround me. I know my oldest guy loves horns, he’s a sucker for early Stevie Wonder, so I nudged his leg and imitated playing one and he nodded and I settled in to watch.
The Who came on next to perform “My Generation” and I remembered how much I used to love that famous line about dying before I got old. How I’d sing that part with a little more gusto than the rest of the song when I was a surly teen during the Jurassic era. And now, there I was, old and surrounded by my four children in a darkened room in London with the song blaring from all sides and realizing I was happy to be kinda old. Or at least old enough to really know when I was in the midst of one of life’s truly juicy moments, instead of looking off towards the horizon, waiting for them to come like some pirate searching for a treasure chest and not seeing all the jewels strewn across the sand. I can be guilty of blindly walking over gems — quiet moments and little victories – in search of that elusive big perfect life of mine.
And there I was smack in the middle of a sweet memory bubble, nestled between my four kids – surrounded by the artistry and the passion and the irreverence of Woodstock and all that it represented – and knowing right where I was. I could tuck it away and pull the memory out during all those less-than-perfect moments we all have and be reminded of that time when the moon and the stars aligned to give me that one beautiful ruby of a moment with my children.
And then Jimi Hendrix walked out on stage to play the national anthem and really, I could have packed it up then and happily flown right home. We sat and watched him riff on that most familiar and powerful of tunes and none of us moved. We sat transfixed and even though I’m always talking about wishing my kids were still babies, there’s something pretty great about hanging out with your grown up kids. Who no longer get antsy and bore easily. Who are interested in the history of other countries and trying new foods and are as riveted as their mom when a guy wearing fringe and a pretty spectacular afro walks out on stage with a guitar and starts to play. It was beautiful and passionate and moving and I loved that they thought so too.
I savored every moment of our trip and instead of feeling anxious about sticking to a schedule and getting to the next place, I enjoyed all our many moments together. Going for the second spin on the Crown Jewels conveyor belt when one of the kids suggested getting a better look at some massive diamond or learning how to navigate our way around the city via the tube and Uber. And even though it was absolutely freezing sitting atop that double-decker bus at night and I had the distinct pleasure of walking to not one but two hospitals on our second day, convinced my youngest had strep throat and needed antibiotics (which he did not), the sun will always shine brightly on the trip in my mind, making all the real gems sparkle there in the sand.
We came home tired but happy late on New year’s Day and my oldest left for work in Manhattan the following morning and the others took to their rooms and got lost in all the unlimited Internet they’d been deprived of for the week abroad and enjoyed some quality time alone. And I did too.
Until our next adventure.
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