Packing Them

Max and Chloe, my oldest son and daughter, left last night on the red-eye to JFK to begin a five-week vacation on the east coast. This is their grand summer vacation, a time for catching up with longtime Montclair friends and reuniting with both sets of grandparents in NJ and NH. We had two long weeks to prepare for their departure — to locate the suitcases, to meditate on which piles of swimsuits, shorts, sweatshirts and tees should accompany them — to get ready for the trip in an organized and methodical fashion. Instead, we completed most of the packing yesterday, the actual day they set out on their journey, in an intensely focused, last-minute rush. Several loads of laundry were washed during a block of time from late morning until a half hour preceding departure from the house. Two different shopping trips to the local CVS to procure sun block (waterproof, as there have been serious sunburn incidents in Max’s past; our new parental mandate is now, “Reapply, Reapply, Reapply!”) and other assorted sundries were made throughout the afternoon. Despite the fact that the act of packing was put off until the very last moment, our entire family has been talking about the trip and making lists and countless alterations to the itinerary for days.

1. First, the travelers and their mother had to decide on the best suitcase. Her idea of squeezing both kids’ items into one large duffel bag on wheels was quickly shot down because there was grave concern that the sibling underwear might touch. The idea that HER underclothes might get all bunched up and mixed in with the son’s clothes and that HIS stained athletic socks might rub up next to the daughter’s blouses made the suggestion of shared luggage utterly incomprehensible. Besides, during the first part of their trip, when they would be in Montclair, each child had been scheduled to visit completely different sets of friends, in different locations, making the shared suitcase idea far too complicated and illogical. The mother dug out two suitcases, one for each traveler.

2. Second, a schedule of visits among the various Montclair friends had to be carefully and thoughtfully devised. The son wanted to witness his eighth grade graduation at his old middle school (with friends dating back to his preschool years) and also find time to visit with his best-friend-next-door-neighbor, Joe, before Joe’s high school graduation celebrations commenced. Would this be possible, within the available time frame? Also, could the mother travel agent somehow manage the travel itinerary so that the NJ grandparents wouldn’t have to drive back and forth from Edgewater to Montclair every day even though the daughter desired to spend two days and nights at a time with each of her many friends? The daughter’s schedule of visits did not sync up neatly with the son’s schedule.

Since the computer brilliant husband did not have time to design a computer program that might organize all these numerous variables into a grand master schedule, the mother was left to work this out on her own, the old fashioned way, with a calendar, paper, a pencil, an eraser. She re-worked the schedule many times over, repeatedly erasing first one attempt at a plan and then replacing it with another. During the last few weeks, she had many emailed conversations with all the New Jersey and New Hampshire players and conferred with the teenaged travelers themselves in frequent meetings that were often heated and strained as the three of them fervently worked through all of the variables to arrive at a balanced equation.

3. Third, the many items to be purchased that were jotted down by the two travelers and their mother on several post-it-note lists scattered throughout the house, had to be gathered into a neat pile, analyzed and condensed into one giant list consisting of legible words lined up on a large clean white piece of paper in an organized numerical list. The list included items like Axe shampoo (particular scent unspecified), WATERPROOF sun block (because of the aforementioned sunburn history), more hair bands, motion sickness medicine (because different, unfamiliar driving styles could call for extra precautions and the two LONG car rides scheduled mid-way through the vacation might require a little something to induce sleep…so that both the monotony and the rolling motion of the car could be managed), a couple of periodicals such as “People” and “US” when the overwhelming boredom from the six-hour flight set in, a second shampoo brand (not Axe, which is a boy brand), sunglasses, gum, mentos, tic tacs and other assorted mints and breath fresheners, cash for snacks and other things during those many in-between times that crop up when one is blissfully vacationing seaside in Cape May or Martha’s Vineyard. We were forced to purchase these items in two different trips as each of the travelers insisted that they accompany the mother while she made her shopping choices and yet one older child needed to remain at home during the excursions to babysit the younger children. (The mother had refused to bring all four children at once to the store.)

4. Fourth, all clothes needed to be washed, folded and neatly put away into the travelers ‘ dresser drawers so that when they began the arduous process of packing, they could do so in an orderly fashion. During the actual packing period, the travelers were forced to wear their oldest and rattiest clothes so that the other clothes (deemed crisp, fashionable and presentable for the vacation) would remain clean and unwrinkled for gentle placement into the suitcases. Comfortable but nice looking outfits were set aside to be worn on the plane.

5. Fifth, the actual packing (and then unpacking and re-packing) happened many times over as the limited amount of space forced both travelers to rethink certain items. As they packed, each traveler patiently listened to the advice of the “packing-guide-mother” (who hovered close by)  as she rattled off all the possible unexpected cold or extreme hot weather scenarios that could arise at any point during the trip. At the end of the “final” packing session, the suitcases were opened one last time to insert the last batch of cleaned and almost-dry clothes as well as all the medications that might be needed for any possible medical contingency during the adventure. At this time, one of the travelers was momentarily confused about whether a certain clothes item had, in fact, made it into the suitcase and this uncertainty necessitated yet another round of unpack/re-pack.

6. Sixth, the last minute details were discussed. As the travelers and their parents were double-checking phone charge levels and reconfirming that phone re-chargers and all the appropriate white cords had indeed been packed into carry-on luggage, the oldest traveler mentioned that he was slightly uncertain of his day-to-day schedule in the weeks to come. He asked if the mother might call him (despite the three hour time difference) on a daily basis to keep him abreast of his activities and whereabouts in the schedule, particularly the Montclair portion of the trip. The mother of the traveler flatly refused this request. She and the traveler son then paused for a moment to print out yet another copy of the master schedule on which dates, times and phone numbers were clearly outlined for all parties to see. It might be noted here that the younger of the two travelers had already previewed the two-page master schedule several times over…in all its many iterations… while the itinerary had been developed by the travel agent mother over the last few weeks. In fact, though the daughter traveler had a copy of the master schedule/itinerary tucked safely into her carry-on bag, for reference at any point in the trip, the mother was almost certain that she had already memorized it word for word, number for number. It was then remarked by the mother that, in a pinch, the eldest traveler could just call or text his younger sibling if he wasn’t sure where he was supposed to be at any given point during the more hectic Montclair portion of the trip. No, the elder traveler said, with a heavy sigh and an elaborate roll of the eyes, that wouldn’t be necessary. He stuffed his newly printed master schedule into the side pocket of his own carry-on luggage.

7. Seventh, when saying good-bye to the traveling offspring, hugging them tight and sneaking in multiple pecks on their soft cheeks, the mother tried hard not to cry, even though good-byes have always been tough for her. This is going to be a long period of time…this trip to the east coast… when her older children would go about their visits and activities thousands of miles away from her. She would not be in control. She would be on the west coast, tending to her other children. The mother spoke quietly to herself and took in slow, deep cleansing breaths as she looked out the kitchen door and watched her husband set the travelers’ suitcases into the trunk of the car. This is yet another practice run for all those good-byes to her children that will come over the years, she reminded herself. Chin up. Don’t be afraid. This isn’t the end of anything for her…this one trip…at this point in time. This is just the beginning of her learning to let go.

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