Thursday, January 27, 2022

The end of the pandemic summer found us scrounging for a quick family vacation before school started, a desire that stemmed from endless months of sheltering in place and feeling trapped. Of feeling like we missed opportunities to celebrate, to travel, to connect, to explore. Of watching time pass by from the inside of our four walls. Since school had sent out a strict list of no-no’s in order to return in person, our vacation options became extremely limited.

I spent hours and hours researching viable options, which included warm climate, good weather, things to do, houses one can rent and a destination that didn’t require us to drive for more hours than we’d be staying there. We settled on a spacious house in the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, and planned to get day passes at a nearby resort with a variety of COVID-friendly, outdoor activities, and also purchased tickets to a waterpark.

I should also add that I planned this the week before, constantly checking the weather, and making last-minute decisions, which is the usual way I operate. We were all really excited to get out and explore and experience the woods and the great outdoors.

The previous two months of summer were definitely more liberating, but March through June brought on an intimacy and simplicity that was eye-opening. I remember once hearing that one of the spiritual components of the upcoming holiday of Sukkot is to notice that we take everything important to us—our family, our sustenance, our mitzvot, out into the permeable walls of the sukkah. And even though they are flimsy, and we have no guarantees of permanence or longevity, we place our faith into the outstretched hands of God, and peer up at them through the cracks of the s’chach. Our emunah is ignited, and that sustains us.

This was the pandemic for me. We had everything we needed in our four walls. There were no guarantees of health or success or tranquility. But we looked out our windows and believed. We believed that what we had was enough, without all of the excess we usually rely on. Our needs were met, without social gatherings, without afterschool activities, without vibrant Sunday activities or an excessive bar mitzvah for our son. And we’d get through it. We would see what mattered.

But when things reopened again, we forged ahead, full force. Relishing the ocean; a lazy day by a pool; outdoor dining, curbside. There was so much the world had to offer, and we would ingest it. And ingest it, we did.

The vacation was another opportunity to delve beyond the allowed repertoire in New York/New Jersey. The drive-in movies we frequented, the hikes we traversed, the friends we sat and ate with, six feet apart. This was going to be the next phase for us, as a family, and we were excited.

But things don’t always go as planned. Nothing is guaranteed. Spontaneous thunderstorms erupted throughout the two days we had planned to be at the resort, closing or delaying much of the outdoor activities, trapping us in storm shelters atop a mountain, huddling and shivering behind our masks. Two of our kids also had a bad stomach bug, which hampered much of our activity, and ultimately cut our trip short. And before Shabbat, an overactive toilet drained all the well-water in the house, leaving it dry, and making us want to flee (it was later repaired).

It would be easy to fixate on how imperfect the trip was. On the things that went wrong, and how we had to veer off-plan and improvise sometimes. But the kids did not complain once. They didn’t feel anything was missing, even though we didn’t get to do as much as we had planned, or that we had to skip the waterpark.

I had always dreamed of having a family who I could sit around and laugh with, and Thursday night, instead of the bonfire and music we had anticipated, but had to cancel due to the storms, we sat around on the couches and played a game that had all six of us rolling in tears of laughter. I tasted the dream, sheltering inside the four walls, oblivious to the pounding rain outside. I had a smiling family who created a noise that reverberated more than what was going on outside.

Later, as we stood around in the kitchen picking at some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, one of my teens casually flung out, “I love our family.” The words hung in the air, as tantalizing as the smell of the dessert, and we all stood still in its warmth.

So often, I hear, “I hate this family!” in response to most anything we say or do as parents, the rules we impart, the screen time we inflict, the curfews, the curtailed shopping sprees. But those words, “I love our family,” undid all of that for me. It nullified my disappointment at the not-so-successful vacation. At the battles we have had over the years, the ones we’ve won or lost, our weak moments. I marveled at the surprising outcomes of sheltering in place. At the beauty in the simple things. A game played in the living room, on someone else’s couches. The pinnacle of our vacation.

That night, I went to sleep staring up into the night through the skylight in our ceiling, remembering how nothing is in our control except our own emunah. Feeling full of pride in the family we created, basking in the success of the unsuccessful vacation. We had created a feeling, a memory, a melodious laughter that would resonate forever. That time we went away and the water dried up. It stormed. There was vomit. And our family loved itself.

Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer, author and life coach, living with her husband and children in Teaneck, New Jersey. She published the book, “Imperfection, A Momoir,” and guides those navigating struggles in their relationships. She runs group coaching sessions and is also available for one-on-one appointments via her website, www.sarahlifecoach.com.

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