“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.”
LeAnn Womack, “I Hope You Dance”
The first time we took Cooper out of the country he was just shy of four months old. We traveled to St. Lucia in the Caribbean and put his baby toes in the sand and held him in the ocean. As he grew and the number of boys in our household also grew we continued to travel, we camped, and hiked, stayed with grandma, packed food and drove – anything we could to get them on the road. Anything to experience new places and people.
My boys have been lucky enough to surf in Costa Rica, snorkel in Jamaica, ride Jeeps in Cozumel, jump off a deck into the crystal clear water off the coast of Roatan, hike the hills of Tennesee and the Smokey Mountains, jump in a crystal clear pool in the jungle in the Dominican Republic, touch the walls of Fort Sumter, pull Walleye from the ice cold waters of Caribou Lake in Canada, tube down a river that cut through a mountain in Belize, feel the magnitude of a manatee as it came to the surface in front of their bellies, snowboard down Blue Mountain and climb Bell Rock in Sedona. Not to mention the trips to allow them to play their sports in states all over this country.
I will admit they are privileged, their dad works very hard to provide them with a comfortable life where they want for little and need for nothing. Their life experiences far outweigh mine at their age – and so does their confidence.
Over spring break this year we took the boys to Florida, ten days to swim in the pool, fish in the water and soak up the sun together. Cooper wasn’t with us – he was across the state with his varsity baseball team practicing for their upcoming season. We had fun plans, we would rent a boat for a day, take the ferry to Key West, enjoy time at the beach, relax and enjoy each other.
As we were traveling through the airport on the way home my thoughts were wandering, turning over memories of the past week in my mind. They had caught fish from the ocean, saw a manatee break the surface in front of them as they stood on the dock of Cabbage Key (where “Cheeseburger in Paradise is said to have been penned – enough reason to go there!), we found sand dollars by the dozens at Fort Myers Beach, and star fish washed up along a secluded island we had boated to. They saw a sheepshead fish and dolphins, a manta ray breeched the water in front of the boat for them to see. They had wandered around Key West – taking in the sights of the people and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. They saw a planetarium and an aquarium. They played in the pool with their dad and their friends – and their friends’ dads. We ate out and ate in. We enjoyed our family time and our time with our dear friends.
In the ins and outs of our daily life – the guts of it – the laundry and the schedules and the toilet cleaning and the floor mopping, the running and chauffeuring that all of us do as parents, I don’t observe them as I do when we are on vacation. I don’t see them as clearly at home – I notice they don’t put their laundry away when I ask. I notice their rooms aren’t clean. On vacation – with less pressure of schedules and to do lists we not only present them with new experiences, but I get to observe them as they really are. Enjoying life, laughing and having fun.
What struck me the most as we walked through the airport to come home was the ease with which they shepherded themselves through security, talked to the TSA agents, followed directions and managed their belongings without losing a thing. Amazing!
Years ago when Cooper was in pre-school I went to a small group discussion with the kindergarden teacher at the elementary school that would become my boys (and my) home for the next 13 years. Cooper would be enrolling in the school the next fall and Mrs. Hansbarger had been Eric’s kindy teacher also. I was anxious to meet this woman who would soon become a mentor to me in raising my small sons, and a teacher I would come to revere.
Sitting in the classroom, it felt so big and grown up, cubbies and schedules, calendars and lunch choices. I was so nervous to hear what she had to say – would Cooper be ready? Would I be ready? I was prepared to take notes. I was prepared to learn and gain goals for the next few months. I was prepared to begin flashing cards and quizzing him on his alphabet. I wanted it straight. What did I have to do to be sure he was ready?
What she said has stuck with me for the nearly fifteen years and has become a mantra in our family. She told me to take him to the post office, to the grocery store. She told me to let him pick out a new food for dinner, to take him to the park and let him run and swing and ride the merry-go-round. She told me to lie on my back with him and count the stars, or make animals from the clouds. She told me to instill a sense of wonder. She told me to read books. She told me to create hooks.
Marilyn went on to explain that kids need hooks in their brain to organize information. They needed ways to categorize new thoughts and ideas, new bits of data that they were intaking every minute. The more places I took them, the more we did, the more hooks they would have and the easier sorting information would become. Give them experiences. Create hooks!
I remember leaving being a a little stunned, and kind of confused. What about flash cards? What about quizzing him about the alphabet and numbers 1 – 20? It was hard to go against what I had read, but in my heart I knew she was right. We would do what we had been doing. We would visit the river and hunt crayfish. We would go fishing and would go for walks in the woods. We would go to the ocean. We would create hooks.
And we have. When the boys were little and money was tight – we stayed with my parents, we camped and drove. Their toy room paled in comparison to their friends. We traveled. That’s what we did. We climbed dunes in Michigan, and tubed down the Platte River. We visited Lake Michigan and swam in Lake Huron. One summer we visited all five Great Lakes! We created memories and created hooks – and not just for my boys. My own confidence grew, my life view expanded. With every memory and experience we gave the boys, I also gave myself a gift. I will always remember how it felt to swim in the ice cold water of a waterfall deep in the Costa Rican jungle with their wiggly legs kicking me under water. I will always remember how it felt when we jumped into the ocean – so crystal clear – in Roatan. I will always remember seeing the momma loggerhead turtle laying her eggs, and how Aiden’s sandy body felt as I held him up so he could see. I will always remember surfing with the ocean behind me, mountains before me and my boys in the water beside me, off the coast of Jaco Beach. I will remember their tired, spent bodies sleeping coming home from a grand adventure.
This past year the two older boys have taken trips on their own (well, without me ;)) across the country.
Jackson to Denver this past March to visit his coach with some friends, and Cooper to Florida – twice now – to train with the baseball team. They had to manage their money and their identification. They had to manage their food, belongings and their time. And as nervous as I was – I wasn’t nervous about them. I knew they would figure it out. The hooks we had given them gave them the confidence to spread their baby wings.
Travel has given me a way to provide experiences for my boys – and to give Eric and I the gift of memories with them that we will always have. In a year and a half Cooper will be off to college (I think I may have mentioned that? :)) and Jackson will soon follow. Before I can blink – they will all be gone. And Eric and I will travel. Travel to see them, travel to Italy, travel to the warmth when our bones are weary from the cold, travel to my parents and his, travel with our friends and family. And in all of our travels we will create new hooks, just like we did for the boys, in a hopes to create a life with a broader view than the one out my front window. To see people and places and contemplate their way of thinking. To remember the time when their little foot steps demanded our time, to remember the time when going to the beach was a labor of love, and hiking meant carrying the littlest one on your back. The hooks will connect us in a way that things never could.