Party of Five

My husband texted me when I was at the store buying a few things prior to a family weekend getaway. “Grab some cheap ponchos just in case it rains,” he said. I went down the camping aisle and put five pea green ponchos in the buggy, thinking the color would help us find each other in the crowded theme park where we were headed. The next day while packing a day bag for a full afternoon of walking, standing in lines, more walking, and more standing in lines, I counted out five Slimer-tinted ponchos – for four people. “I counted one for Nan!” I cried out. My heart had already been hurting a little that our oldest daughter couldn’t be with us, and seeing that lone, unpacked poncho made her absence more palpable.
My husband was sympathetic but more practical: “Hey, at least it will be easier to ride rides with an even number of people. And there will be less fighting among the girls.” I don’t have to tell parents of odd numbers that having three kids means two, any two, always form a faction against the other at some point. But I was willing to handle occasional squabbles and ride roller coasters with strangers if it meant that all five of us could be together.

When my oldest daughter went away to college, I didn’t think family events would change much, since her school is less than two hours away. I envisioned the same family weekend trips we had always done, just including an extra stop in Columbia to grab her along the way. As you now know from my superfluous poncho experience, I was quite wrong. This change in family dynamics as well as headcounts began in the fall of her freshman year, when we were planning the details of our annual weekend to Table Rock State Park. “There’s no way I can go,” she said. She had school. She had stuff. I wasn’t too sad because Thanksgiving was around the corner, and soon after that I would have her for three whole weeks at Christmas.

Then Thanksgiving arrived, followed by three whole weeks of Christmas. We were all overjoyed when she walked in the door for her first holiday after becoming a college woman, but I was also unprepared for the altered dynamic of a newly independent kid integrating back into a household with rules, curfews, a kitchen woefully understocked compared to a dining hall, and much older and younger housemates. That first November night we talked, visited, and shared stories, and when it was time for bed, I hugged her and told her how happy I was that she would be sleeping in her own bed tonight. “Oh, I’m about to go out. Not sure when or if I’m coming back tonight.” “Tonight? It’s a school night for your sisters and a work night for the rest of us.” “I’ll be quiet when I come in. If I come home.” “Where are you going?” “Out.” “Where?” “Don’t know yet.” “Who will you be with?” “Not sure yet.” And so it went.

Christmas was pretty similar, so needless to say, it was a while before she returned home for a visit. And it was a while before we drove up to see her. But just as I was craving her company for a week at our annual beach trip, I got the following text: “I’m not going to be able to go to the beach this year because of work.”

This, this would not do. This was our family reunion in our common “thin place,” as the ancient Celts would have called it, a week of joy and renewal and remembrance and connections.

“Maybe I could come down for like a day, but that’s it.”

She had scored her first paid internship, but I didn’t think it started so soon (this was the end of May, after all). But it did, and I had to come to grips with the fact that at age nineteen, my child would most likely be working full time somewhere each summer and holiday until her retirement. So I packed five beach towels, five bath towels, and five sets of sheets out of habit, only to have to stare at them unused in the bag once we got there. Well, not completely unused – she did pop by for a Saturday visit, hugging aunts, cousins, and grandparents and enjoying a sunset dinner before driving back to her adulthood.

You’d think that I’d be used to this routine by now, but I can’t imagine not counting her. We talk or text regularly, and I have more reason to be proud of the woman she is becoming with each passing day. All the same, I bought five ponchos when four would do.

We got lucky on our recent family getaway. The rain held off until the morning were were leaving, though we did use those ponchos while loading up the car. As we rolled our suitcases out to the hotel portico, a young family of five was waiting outside for a shuttle to take them for a day of exhausting fun. The mom and three little girls were snug in their own ponchos while the dad was getting soaked. “Here,” I told him. “I have an extra.” “Thanks!” said the man, and as we drove off I saw a flash of green loading his future memories onto an idling shuttle bus. I wish I could make him and his wife know just how fleeting that day would be so they would savor the long lines, meltdowns, and wet shoes. Because sooner than he realizes, he will be offering his extra poncho to a stranger.

By Tara Bailey