Years ago, before I became a parent, I went on safari in South Africa. Our open-top Jeep consisted of a guide, an animal trainer and a woman with two teenagers. Seeing animals in the wild, so close you could touch them, is a hell of an ice-breaker, and I quickly learned that the woman was the stepmother to the teenagers and that her husband, their father, had died just months before. He had planned this trip and they decided to take it anyway.
During our first evening ride, I felt like I was in a movie, watching a gaggle of giraffes walking into the sunset. But the teenagers seemed bored and sullen. By Day Two, when we rolled up on a leopard lounging on a tree, something shifted. We were all so amazed, and the gap between the stepmother and the teenagers seemed to disappear entirely. I remember making a mental note that someday when I had a teenager, I would try to take her on safari. I was impressed at how united all of us in the Jeep were and how the wow of a new experience allowed the parent in our group to lay down the mantle of authority and just be in this shared experience with the children.
Family vacation photos found in the New York Times’ archive was a powerful reminder that what makes a family vacation truly great is less about where you go and how much you spend, and all about how excited you are to be there.
Take, for example, the family pictured gazing up at the Parachute Jump at Coney Island. As was reported in 1952, the Peters, a family of five, hitchhiked from Toronto with $32 in their pocket. They left New York to return home with $4 in change.
The families pictured look absolutely thrilled to be taking in the varied streetscape of New York from a tour bus or to be sailing around the Statue of Liberty on the Circle Line.
In his famous children’s books about the misadventure-prone schoolgirl Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans wrote, “The best part of a voyage by plane, by ship, or train — is when the trip is over and you are home again.” If that’s true, it’s because we all look forward to looking back.
Where you’ve been will always be a part of who you are. We are all in an open Jeep on a safari, hunting for memories.