Physicians, nurses, and others who work in health care often are very busy in their work and must to some degree skimp on family time. Long hours, travel, grants, and publications often steal time from the family. My wife Pat is a nurse, but she worked as a nurse only until our firstborn arrived; after that she became a full-time “housemother” until our third and last child was in middle school. That eased my conscience when I stole time from them, but not much. One partial remedy was an annual family vacation, and by “family,” I mean our three daughters, their husbands, their children, and Pat and me.
When we started we were only eight—only one grandchild, and one daughter was single. Today we number 13 with five grandchildren.
In about 1993 my as-yet-unmarried daughter, Margaret, complained that we always talked about family vacations but never did it. Of course, I was “too busy,” a convenient but bogus excuse. So I told Margaret that if she wanted this so much, she should make the arrangements. And she did. Having an eager volunteer turned out to be the first key to our success.
Our first destination was Hilton Head Island, which most of us could drive to. Since our daughters were still early in their careers, I volunteered to pay for the rented house (more on this later) and buy the food; fortunately we had several excellent cooks among us so we mostly cooked for ourselves. The house had a pool and we were close to the beach; we had a very good time. There was a learning curve for living together peacefully, but we got much better at it as time went on.
In the subsequent years we went to Hilton Head many times, to Charleston, South Carolina, twice; to Moab and Arches National Park in Utah; to a cabin in the Northern Georgia mountains; and to Chicago for our 50th wedding anniversary. Chicago is Pat's and my hometown, and all three of our daughters were born there. We rented two condos overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan and could walk to the museums. We used public transportation to Navy Pier, Wrigley Field, and elsewhere.
All of the above trips were only one week long—the second key to our success.
But the trips we talk most about today were those we took to Italy, which we visited three times. Those vacations differed in several ways from our customary ones: They were two weeks long instead of one; everyone had to fly to get there; and the total cost was substantially more. In 1999 we rented a villa on a hill above Lake Garda. The owner met us at the door of the 100-year-old mansion and showed us the master bedroom where he was born. He told us to help ourselves to the ripening apricots in the orchard adjacent to the house. We ate outside under an arbor on a large stone table. My grandson who was a toddler then, was given the task, which he relished, of climbing on the table and sweeping off the leaves.
Our second visit was to Sicily in 2008. Everyone was older, of course, which made daily chores a bit easier. We rented a 500-year-old villa (originally a winery) with a great pool near Taormina. Our youngest daughter was late in pregnancy and did not go with us, but my sister and her family did, raising our group to 15 people. The now seasoned travelers explored the region in various small groups, but we always ate dinner together. We invited a former fellow of mine who lived nearby to join us for dinner one evening and a cousin of mine, whom I had never met in person, invited us all to dinner on another evening. My mother was from Sicily.
The third trip to Italy was in June 2013. We rented a villa in a small fishing village near the city of Acireale (just north of Catania). It was wonderful. There was plenty of space, the obligatory pool, and close proximity to wonderful sights and ancient Greek structures in the area.
Adaptations and Complexities
The natural evolution of our vacations required adaptations to changing ages of the kids, changing tastes, a progressively growing comfort in trying new things, and going to new sites. The trips to Italy were more complex, of course, and by then our homes were more spread out; we had to book flights so that we ended up on the same flights to Rome and then Catania or to Milan.
Here are some of the things that helped us get through the complexities and costs: All house rentals were obtained online. We had uniform success with this approach and had no major bad surprises. For the overseas trips, we used our frequent flier miles to pay for some, but not all, airfares. Our oldest daughter and her husband are physicians who travel quite a bit. We usually rented cars so small groups could explore on their own. The exploring groups often had cousins and aunts and nephews. We slept in only one place—usually a villa in Italy and a cabin or beach house in the States, meaning that there was no packing and unpacking and we had the freedom to cook for ourselves. We all shared the shopping.
When I tell friends that we have done this for 20 consecutive summers they find it hard to believe. How did you manage getting everyone together, they ask.
So here are some keys:
1. I already mentioned that an igniter is needed to start the process. Someone must take responsibility for finding and choosing a place to go. Our youngest daughter took that role.
2. All vacations except to Italy were only one week long—that was enough and was also practical for busy professionals.
3. The most important key was that I paid for the rentals, much of the food, and a large share of airline tickets. That was important, especially in the early years when the kids had little cash and growing families. Also, when our kids left the nest we suddenly became richer sans tuition, etc., making the Italy trips possible.
4. We planned each trip well in advance, usually 8-12 months, so we got on everyone's calendar early.
But back to my title, the importance of these family vacations. Although we often get together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, these are usually one- or two-day get-togethers with a lot of rushing around and a focus on presents and meals. The one- and two-week vacations are relaxed, fun, and provide an opportunity for aunts and uncles and cousins to catch up (“my, my how much you have grown!”) and play games, go fishing, and the like.
It is a time for cementing our family ever closer together, to express our love in many little ways, and to enjoy a sense of mild adventure together. It became a fixture in our family lives that our three sons-in-law took to with gusto.
For some time now in late summer or early fall, one of the family will ask, “Where are we going next year”? Our kids and their husbands are all busy professionals, but they understand how important the vacations are, and they truly look forward to them (especially if we are going to Italy).
Pat and I spend the money, sometimes a substantial amount, with pleasure (after the shock subsides). After all, should we save that money so our kids can go to Italy after my wife and I are gone? No siree, we want to be part of that gathering as long as we live. And we want to leave a tight and loving family that will pass down these traditions to their own children, and we want them to know and be interested in all family members.
We are blessed to have such a family.