The family stories that spring from family vacations are some of the best. When my husband and I got married one of our family goals was to make sure we have at least one family vacation each year. Sometimes they are big, sometimes they are small, but those vacations have been one of the biggest contributors to our family stories and are a part of our family’s oscillating narrative. And when it has come to a choice between a new couch and a family vacation will always pick the vacation. (Our couch is about 20 years old!) Research now validates this viewpoint, saying that family vacations act as “happiness anchors” for children. Oliver James, Britain’s best-selling psychological author outlines this idea in a conversation with The Telegraph.
Most family stories come naturally from family vacations, but there are ways to step up your game and make family vacations more intentional. Author Bruce Feiler’s wonderful book The Secrets of Happy Families gives practical tips for stepping up the level of adventure and reducing stress on vacations. He recommends creating games to challenge and engage family members, including a yes/no game called “Thinking of a time when…” that evokes stories. Another tip is to “lock in memories” at the end of a vacation by writing a story, creating an album, or some other fun way to help everyone remember the good times. On this New York Times page is a video with Feiler giving 5 tips for better family vacations.
In my life there have been some special and unique occasions where finding and creating family stories becomes a purpose of the trip. The last two years have served that purpose with our family and it has really changed my perspective of family stories and their importance. They were two very different vacations – the first was to make memories, the second was to find them. Both are so important for families of all shapes and sizes!
A vacation to create family stories
Two years ago we had a unique family dynamic happening. My daughter was leaving to serve an 18-month mission for our church in Sweden. My oldest son had returned from his church mission the year before, but was spending his summer near the Oregon coast – about a day’s drive away from home. Our third son was going to start his senior year and leave for his church mission about four months before my daughter returned. This meant it would be more than three years before our family would be all be together again, and I suspected our family may never be the same make up due to marriage and changes. (I was right, I happily gained a new daughter-in-law last June!) Because of my son’s work schedule, we only had two full days to vacation all together on the Oregon coast so my husband and I vowed to make every single moment count. We rented a house on the beach and we soaked up every moment together.
We ate fancy food, slept in, played on the beach and had some spiritual experiences together I will never forget. I tend to get anxious on vacations to “cram everything in” but I know I was blessed to go with the flow and soak in all the minutes of this trip. I took the opportunity to bear testimony about my relationship with God and my beliefs when I could and we also took time to turn the music up loud and sing and mess around. There were some moments of fighting, but I remember the time as magical. And it almost seemed as if time stopped. Those family memories are held tight in my heart and I also took time to write down the best moments and talked to each of my children separately about their favorite memories.
I will never forget the last 30 minutes of the time with all of us together as we drove my son back to his apartment to finish his work. I started to weap. I tried to cry silently, but I could not hold back the tears. These magical moments in time were drawing to a close. My family was changing – all good changes – but changing nonetheless and I was helpless to do anything about it. My husband reached over, wiped a tear from my eye, grabbed my hand and it kissed it. He was feeling it too. We listened to a soundtrack of music mixed with our family’s favorite band, “The National Parks” the soundtrack of “The Best Two Years,” our family’s favorite movie, and of course, the soundtrack to “Hamilton.” as we drove. When we are feeling nostalgic and aching for each other as a family we listen to those songs still.
We added a huge chapter to our family story. And it was something we will never forget and always cherish.
A vacation to remember family stories
Now fast forward one year. My daughter was still in Sweden. My 18-year-old son was months away from starting his two-year church mission in Roseville, California. My oldest son was getting married. And by some strange stroke of luck, his bride-to-be was from Texas in a town just about 40 miles from the town where my father was born and raised. The town where I vacationed to every single summer when I was growing up. She grew up in the midst of where most of aunts and uncles live and only four hours from where my only sister currently lives. I had always wanted to re-visit all those memories I made as a child and now because we would be having a wedding reception there I got to visit with all (well almost all) my children and husband in tow. What a sweet, beautiful tender mercy for me!
The deal was extra sweet, because being the family history buffs my husband and I are, we also were able to visit two old family cemeteries in the heart of Texas that we had longed to visit since my husband started to dig deep into my dad’s family line.
As a child, I didn’t appreciate all the joys of the family vacation to Texas every year. I was a silly, selfish kid who thought it would be great to visit lots of different spots instead of hot, humid Texas. Now, I can’t put into words the gratitude I have to my parents of instilling that family bond with my Texas family all those years ago. The reunion was sweet when my aunts, uncles and cousins appeared at the wedding reception and even sweeter when we got together for a big family party and another family dinner with my cousin. We also traveled to my dad’s hometown with my sister to visit my grandparent’s home, see where my dad played football and show our kids the swimming hole where we my sister and I learned that my dad could hold his breath under water longer than any other human.
As we gathered around my Aunt Debbie’s living room after a delicious BBQ meal, it was sweet to share stories of our visits to Texas as kids and even sweeter when Aunt Debbie pulled out some beautiful scrapbooks she had made chock full of photos of my dad, his siblings, his parents and grandparents as my aunts and uncles talked about them all growing up.
My joy felt pretty full. The generations seemed to converge as I walked out onto the patio and watched my children swim and play with my cousin’s children and then gathering around the table and laugh and joke while sipping Dr Pepper. I couldn’t help but think my Great Grandma and Grandpa Jackson whose portrait hangs in my Aunt Debbie’s living room, were maybe there with us, celebrating the reunion as well.
Make it count
So why do I share these vacation tales, you ask? To encourage you to make these vacation family memories count. When there is a question of whether to remodel the kitchen or take the trip – take the trip. When there is a question of whether to share a story of your youth while you vacation or spend extra money on a game of mini-golf – take a moment and tell the story – and gosh, even write it down. I’m pretty sure my kids may have rolled their eyes a few times when we visited the old family cemetery. But when they found many of their namesakes on the headstones the feelings of love were tangible, not soon to be forgotten. Don’t be afraid to do something that may sound a bit boring at first, because five years from now, guess what? It won’t be boring. It will be unforgettable. Now, I’m not saying your family vacations need to be all about family stories. Mix it up a little. Did we visit Cowboy Stadium, the Magnolia Farms in Waco and the Dr. Pepper museum? You bet! We totally mixed the fun in with the family history stuff.
Combine the Stories and the “Fun”
I have found the sweetest moments come when you can combine the two. My dad is a storyteller and has told my children of his love for the Cotton Bowl where the Texas Longhorns used to play the Oklahoma Sooners every year. We made a pilgrimage there, of course. The sounds of elation from the back seat when they saw it in all its glory for the first time were worth the trip. They loved it because they love their grandpa. That family story came to life for them and it’s one I won’t soon forget.
Tips on How to plan a storyful vacation:
- Plan, plan, plan! This last year my husband sat our family down with a small power point of options for our family vacation. We told the kids of the family things we would be doing, but then asked them to pick their top 3 of the other “fun” options. We then merged all those top 3’s together and we made sure to hit at least one on everyone’s list.
- Scout out eating options. Depending on your budget, the food can make or break a trip, but the best thing we’ve found is to let everyone know what the food plans are before we go. For our Texas and Oregon trips food was a big deal for us. We planned to spend big on food. When we went to Yellowstone, we ate out of a packed cooler the whole time. Both were wonderful because we had a plan for food. Related: Dinner Table Conversation Starters for Families.
- Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when things don’t go according to plan. If you get lost – laugh. If you don’t get your way – laugh. I’m not perfect at this, but the stories are much better after if you laugh at craziness instead of get angry.
- Be deliberate with your storytelling. Tell family memories and make family memories. You may want to take a family journal along to record your thoughts as you go or even leave it out so your kids can do the same. Having your little ones draw pictures will also be a treasure in years to come.
- Create a family vacation soundtrack. I think each of our family vacations has memorable songs we pair with our vacations. It makes the memories more tangible when you hear the song again.
Get extended family talking:
If your vacation involves a reunion or extended family gathering, check out our package of 5 booklets. These memory-evoking questions will spark stories, and the booklets are reasonably priced so you can pass them around to family members.
Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer/editor at Evalogue.Life. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.
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