Our family spent this week in a rented house on the Maine coast, as we have for four of the past six summers (the two absences were due to the summer births of babies #2 and #4). By “our family,” I mean my husband and me, our four children, and my parents. Also with us — just down the road — are my mother’s sister, her two daughters (my cousins), their husbands, and their four combined children. Assorted family members visit us throughout the week. It’s a reunion of sorts, a vacation (of sorts), and a very fun time. Our daughters look forward to Maine all year. This trip is becoming a tradition, one that’s full of memories. The first time we came here, we were living in California and I was pregnant with our first child. A lot has changed in six years.
Now that we live in Vermont, Maine is a nice place to visit for two reasons. First, it has a seacoast, which landlocked Vermont does not. (This means that my husband spends a lot of time worried about waves and rip tides, which our daughters — experienced lake and pool swimmers — only encounter here.) Also, Maine is convenient; we can get here in about 5 hours, which includes an hour break for lunch. (In other words, we arrive before the battery dies on our portable DVD player.)
But now that we live in Vermont, I’ve also noticed that our Maine vacation seems a little backwards. You see, for most people a beach vacation entails “getting away from it all,” going somewhere with “a slower pace of life.” This was certainly true the two summers when we traveled to Maine from the San Francisco Bay Area. But now…now we live “away from it all.” Finding a location with “a slower pace of life” than our small town in Vermont would entail visiting a smaller town in Vermont.
These days, the Maine beach town that we’ve always visited seems bustling, over-developed, congested. It’s filled with tourists from fancy places like Boston and New Jersey. They drive fancy, fast cars, and they don’t stop when they see you waiting to cross the street. Enormous new beach “cottages” are being constructed on every square foot of land. The only bookstore in town closed down and became the 57th tacky souvenir shop. And 30 minutes of our 5-hour drive to Maine are spent inching along in traffic on the three-mile stretch between the interstate and our rental house.
If it sounds like I’m cranky and complaining, I’m really not. Maine may no longer be the idyllic retreat that it once seemed, but it’s always fun to be somewhere other than home for a time. The beaches are beautiful. We get to visit with family whom we rarely see the rest of the year. Maine offers us new experiences and sights, like lighthouses and lobster boats and saltwater taffy (which, in one hilarious episode this summer, my oldest daughter tried, disliked, and then was unable to spit out. “It’h sthicky!” she cried, bent over the trashcan and clawing at her mouth.)
This particular summer, I’ve noticed something else backwards about our trip to Maine: For some strange reason, being at the beach brings out the best behavior in my daughters. For instance, our first morning here my two oldest girls woke up at the crack of dawn, as is their custom. But instead of bursting into our bedroom and demanding water or the toilet, I heard them walk quietly downstairs. Then I heard clanking noises, which immediately alarmed me. Surveying the situation from the top of the staircase, I saw that they’d gone downstairs, fetched one of the rental house’s games, set it up in the living room, and were now happily engaged in a round of “Connect 4.”
I tiptoed back to bed.
That might have been just a blip, a temporary foray into maturity. But after breakfast that same morning, my three oldest daughters slipped upstairs. Ten minutes later they emerged. They were dressed. Their hair was done. Their teeth were brushed. And, as they proudly showed us, they’d cleaned their rooms and made their beds. These are the very things that I spend an hour hounding them to do every morning back home.
“Girls,” I exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you! This is wonderful! But just tell me something: Why don’t you act this way when we’re at home?”
“Mommy, we’re on vacation!” one of my daughters replied, as if that explained it all.
And maybe it does.