The words surprised even me, tumbling from my mouth before my brain had a chance to process them.
“If you quit asking me for money for clothes for the whole school year then I’ll, uh … next summer I’ll take you to the European city of your choice, for a week.”
“Are you serious?” my son said.
Wait, was I?
On that night last fall, my son wanted a new shirt. I wanted peace. Both of my sons have higher sartorial standards than my budget allows, just one of many triggers for the intergenerational conflict familiar to parents of teenagers. I can usually get them to drop the subject for the moment. But for a whole school year?
Clearly, that would take a bribe — a bribe so absurdly huge it would cost about 20 times the price of a few wardrobe updates.
I discussed the idea with others. Relatives and friends encouraged me, in the way of loved ones who imagine you having a delightful time overseas. My ex-husband had a different reaction, in the way of an ex who imagines you paying your share of the college bills.
“Oh. My. God,” he said.
For most of my life, I have occupied a comfortable space in the middle of the middle class. But the past few years have left me, like so many others, financially bruised. Retirement is still on a distant horizon but advancing like a posse in a classic western, a dust cloud raised by thundering hoofs.
This was no time to be jetting off around the globe.
Unless it was exactly the time.
My older son would be leaving for college the following fall. The younger was a junior in high school. Soon they would leave the stage of their lives — so endless while it’s happening — when taking a big trip with one’s mom is a culturally approved option. A man traveling with his mother is considered so inherently ridiculous that Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand mined it for laughs in 2012’s “The Guilt Trip.” Young adults, since long before Kerouac, hit the road with peers. It’s a classic, near-mythical proclamation of maturity and independence — concepts directly at odds with attachment to one’s mom.
The mom, of course, holds a different perspective. I believe teenagers are programmed by evolution to drive their parents crazy — if they didn’t, we’d never let them leave, and the human race would die out. But lately, any surges of annoyance had been accompanied by twinges of foreshadowed loss.
Already, I was too aware of the sound my footsteps made in an empty house.
I rented an apartment in Paris for a week from friends of friends. But first, we spent three days in Barcelona, thanks to a travel agent who explained that buying three nights in a hotel, even in Spain, would reduce our plane tickets, oddly, by more than the hotel would cost (if you glean nothing else from this essay, remember: Always check hotel-airfare packages).
Barcelona was sunny and warm and relaxing. My older son practiced his Spanish. My younger son took hundreds of pictures. In the afternoons, I left them to mingle with other teenagers on the beach while I wandered farther down the sidewalk to a seaside cafe. I spent the afternoon of the summer solstice looking out at the Mediterranean, reading and eating tapas. In the evenings, the three of us ventured out for sightseeing and gazpacho, pan tumaca, paella, more tapas.
Paris was cooler, cloudier. We saw Notre Dame, Château de Vincennes, the Louvre, Versailles. We browsed in a fashionable clothing store my older son somehow knew about. My younger son took more pictures. We climbed l’Arc de Triomphe’s 284 steps. We ate escargots, cassoulet, pâté, lamb confit, countless pastries. We examined paintings and statues and gargoyles, stayed up late around the kitchen table discussing our experiences, debating politics and culture, showing each other YouTube videos we liked.
In a poetic way, I felt we were traveling back in time. When my sons were small, I quit a full-time job and freelanced part-time from home. We spent afternoons at playgrounds, beaches, sliding hills, apple orchards.
Those years with my kids were precious, but they cost me some financial security. I came to look at them as a long vacation I couldn’t really afford. Not the relaxing kind, with umbrella drinks by the pool — more like hacking through dense jungle, some days — but still, an expensive luxury.
When my sons became teenagers, those outings receded, fading in their memories. Now here we were, enacting a brief, improbable echo of those long-ago adventures, with tapas instead of Happy Meals. This one, they would remember.
On the plane home, the boys sat together. I was a couple of rows behind. I was absorbed in “Life of Pi” when my older son turned and caught my attention. Look out your window, he gestured.
I opened the shade and almost gasped. Everything below was white, not with clouds but snow. Clear to the horizon, maybe hundreds of miles: nothing but blowing, vacant snow. I put the movie on pause, unable to pull my gaze away as the plane crossed over this landscape, a part of the world I had never expected to see.
I can’t predict the future, which is why a sensible financial adviser might have discouraged me from shelling out for a trip to Europe. Money is for a rainy day, to replace a blown water heater, to ensure a comfortable old age.
But in the meantime, there’s the age I am now. The ages my sons will soon leave behind. Our lives are made up of what we do in the present, and of the memories we carry into that vast unknown landscape ahead.
So, foolishly or not, I risked some future security to enhance my own personal Trip of a Lifetime. I’m not talking about our 11-day visit to Europe. I mean the big trip, the one that takes you through childhood mistakes and ill-starred romances and unforeseeable crises … and, when all goes well and you grab the opportunities as they come, some wonderful experiences.