I’m not a big fan of what I call “obligation holidays”. I’m talking about days like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and even my birthday. Holidays when you feel like you’re supposed to be doing something. Everyone asks what you’re doing on those days, and there’s the expectation that you need to do something great – a fabulous dinner, flowers, a midnight kiss. When it doesn’t happen, there’s a feeling of total failure. The end-of-the-day giant letdown.

Summer has always felt like one big long obligation holiday.

There’s the anticipation at the beginning of summer. Oh, we’re going to go on a trip, and go to the beach, and have cook-outs and family bike rides. This will be the year we finally take the boat out again, and…

(that last one is a tough one for me…the boat has been sitting in our garage for six years now. Tim and I used to talk about it every spring, thinking that maybe this will be the summer that we’ll rent a place on the lake for a week and spend the whole day out on the water like we used to do before…well, before everything. We don’t even mention it anymore. We both just stare at the boat in silence as we stack strollers and scooters and trash cans up against it.)

This summer I decided to break the cycle. I know our family better now. I know our limitations and have a better understanding of what we can and can’t do. I set zero expectations for this summer. And as I wrote back in June, I dug my heels in and started counting the days until September.

And now, Gerry starts school on Tuesday, and Howie the week after that. Gerry has a memory bag that his new teacher gave him on the last day of school, and he’s supposed to put special things in there from his summer adventures. I remember getting sad looking at it, knowing that I had nothing special planned, and just hoping we could find a thing or two so the bag wouldn’t be empty when he returned to school.

So here I sit now, the last Friday of August. I’m trying to figure out what we could put in that bag.

The truth is, quite a lot. Here’s what we did on our summer vacation:

-attended a wedding (my mom’s)
-went to Storyland
-went blueberry picking*
-went to the library
-played at the park (not once, not twice, but three times)*
-went bowling*
-went to the zoo*
-shopped at the mall
-went to the beach (just me, Gerry and Howie)
-took family walks
-taught Howie how to ride his bike
-played in the backyard
-went to the New England Aquarium
-saw a ballgame at Fenway Park (ok, this was just Tim and Gerry, but still cool)
-went to birthday parties (two of them – both Howie’s friends, first time ever)
-had playdates
-took all three boys swimming in friends’ pools (once even by myself!)
-survived camp/summer school/swim lessons (just barely)
-had a sleepover (Gerry’s first…more on this another time)
-bounced in a bounce house. All five of us together.

note: the (*) next to some of the activities on the list means I did them with the assistance of a mother’s helper. I hired the 15 year old daughter of Howie’s one-on-one aide to help me out two mornings a week on the days when Howie wasn’t at his summer school. The best decision I ever made and worth every penny. I’m pretty sure this summer would have been an even longer one had I not done that. I’m forever grateful for her help.

I’m exhausted just typing that list. Well, I’m exhausted with a smile on my face.

To the average family, that list might not seem so impressive. It’s probably what most families do during those 12 weeks of summer. But for us? Not so average. Getting us out of the house is sometimes accomplishment enough. Getting us anywhere is impressive.

Were there days when the minutes seemed like hours and the hours seemed like days? Absolutely. Were there days when I thought that all the progress we’d made with Howie this past year had disappeared in an instant? Definitely. Were there days when I sat at the computer, trying to hide my tears from the boys? More than I care to count. Were there tantrums, meltdowns, and screaming matches at some of those activities? Oh yes (just ask them at the zoo…)

But there were also mornings that started with laughter, when the coffee pot wasn’t the first thing I reached for. Afternoons filled with baseball, and swings and bike races. Nights when I fell asleep easily, knowing that we had made the most of the day.

That is our new version of summertime. The living isn’t easy, but it’s the best we can do. I know we’re not the rent-a-place-at-the-lake kind of family. At least not now.

Gerry has several things to put in his memory bag now, including one more to be made today with his dad at the water park. They’ve waited all summer for the perfect day to go. Can’t get more perfect than today.

Perfect song on the radio
Sing along ’cause it’s one we know
It’s a smile, it’s a kiss
It’s a sip of wine, it’s summertime
Sweet summertime”
– Summertime by Kenny Chesney

We just got back from the happiest place on Earth.

No, not Disney.

Disneyworld (or Disneyland for that matter) is just not feasible for my family, logistically or financially.  Flying with the five of us, and our kids at all different ages and stages, is just incredibly difficult right now, not to mention very expensive.  Add in admission to the park, hotel, finding food for my vegan husband and corn-free Howie…Disney is just out of our realm right now.  Plus Tim hates to travel.  So for the sake of our sanity and our checking account, we keep our travels to car trips.

So for us, our “Disney” is Storyland, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  And for my three guys, this place is heaven on earth.

This was our sixth year at the park.  We first went with Gerry when he turned three (and it was just him) and we’ve gone back every summer around his birthday ever since.  The park has been in existence for over 55 years, and Tim’s mother remembers taking him when he was a little kid.  The park has evolved over the years, of course, but the overall point remains the same – giving kids between the ages of 1-10 and their parents a fun, safe place to have a fantastic family vacation.  For my guys, it’s the one family vacation spot we go.  Howie talks about it ALL year long, and asks starting in December if it’s time to go back to Storyland.

There are many things that make this park special for a lot of families.  For us, with all of our “special needs”, this park is perfect.  First of all, almost all the rides are for kids 36 inches and under.  That means there’s no “sorry, you can’t go on that very cool looking rollercoaster”, or “I know that Crazy Barn looks really awesome, but you’re too small” talk.  There’s very little saying “No”.  My kids get to choose the rides they want to go on, not have the park choose it for them.  Even the baby got to do a bunch of rides, which thrilled him to no end.   Parents can also fit on all the rides with their kids, so it’s truly a family event.

Not to say there aren’t plenty of meltdowns.  But they seem to happen around 2pm at the front of the park at nap time.  Or in my family, when it’s time to leave.

Secondly, the park is relatively small and feels very safe.  Because the rides are geared towards the younger set, there are no teenagers or grownups trying to muscle their way on any of the rides  (nothing against teenagers or grownups, but when I’m with my little kids I don’t want to worry about someone bouncing the ride to make it crazier, or swearing, or causing a ruckus).  Everyone there seems to be either a parent, a grandparent or some relative, oohing or ahhing over seeing Cinderella, waving to the train as it goes by, or sharing an ice cream with their kid.  I’m sure they have had issues in the past with safety, but you wouldn’t know it.  There are no security guards or policemen walking around.  Just Mother Goose and the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe.

It’s the most family friendly place I’ve ever been.  They have special “Mama’s Houses” for moms to feed, change and nap their babies, complete with rocking chairs and clean changing tables.  Every restroom has at least one unisex family bathroom, so we can all go in together.  The rides are clean and all the ride operators are incredibly friendly.  We try to go at off-peak times, so we’ve never waited on a line for more than 10 minutes.  If the line is long at one place, we move on and come back at another time.

Thirdly, and most helpful to me, they list all their food choices and ingredients (color coded by allergen) on their website.  That means before we even enter the park I have a list of foods that both Tim and Howie can eat.  Yes, that list is short (for Howie it was five foods that were corn-free) but at least I know those foods so I’m not checking labels.  You can also bring in your own food to the park, which is a life saver (and money saver) for my family.  Our lunch consisted of yogurt smoothies, goldfish and apples that I brought from home.  And they don’t care.

And finally, for us, it’s the one place where all of my kids’ needs are met.  Lewis can go on rides, throw balls with reckless abandon in their “Loopy Lab”, and run through the park from place to place.  Howie can map out his entire day based on all the rides he wants to go on and run/climb/jump and get all his sensory inputs without feeling overwhelmed.  Gerry can do all the rides by himself now, and we save special rides just for him and Tim to do while Lewis, Howie and I ride the train around the park (over and over and over again).  I must say, Gerry was truly the hero of the day.  He went on rides with both Lewis and Howie, even the ones he didn’t want to.  He rode alone on certain ones because Tim and I were in a seat with one of the other two.  And he let Howie go ahead of him in line – twice – when the purple electric car was coming and Howie was screaming that he needed to ride in that specific car.  Tim and I are, for the most part, worry-free.  Our kids smiles make all the difference.

Not that the trip was perfect.  Things were certainly more stressful now that we have a toddler – the car ride was hard because Lewis was trying to nap but Howie kept shouting/making noise/asking for hugs/stopping to pee.  Lewis also did his best to set a new world record in hotel room destruction.  And it was hot.  Very hot.  But we still managed to go swimming, take pictures, and enjoy each other’s company – the three most important components to a successful family vacation.

Howie’s already planning our next trip back.

There is this little song I wrote
I hope you learn it note for note
Like good little children
Don’t worry, be happy”
– Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin