Once upon a time my family vacation looked different – no fuss, no glamour, but full of all the classic summer substance that freckles childhood.
Mom’s family had a lake house upon a hill that rolled down to the rocky shoreline of the then sleepy watering hole in Southwest Louisiana, Prien Lake. Prien, as we called it, was another of my childhood constants—as important as church and as ritual as fireworks on the Fourth. If Bay St. Louis was the shiny, sandy string by which my upbringing was pulled, Prien was the frolicking, mucky highlight, smack dab in the middle of each July.
Unlike the Bay, there was nothing remotely fancy about the house at Prien. Built in the early 1900s by my great-grandparents, it was never intended to be a year-round residence. There was no air conditioning except for one unit in the living room, no television but a tiny black and white screen with rabbit ears, no telephone, and the only bathroom was a small one off the sparsely appointed kitchen.
Prien was surrounded by lush vegetation, trees and shrubbery that came with an array of critters. Lizards, skinks, bugs, spiders, and an occasional snake were fairly normal visitors. But there were also fireflies at night, blanketing the lawn as we played board games like Mad Magazine and Win, Place, or Show in the front room, and dragonflies in the morning that zoomed about the hammock hanging from the branches of a big Magnolia tree. While the Bay had one large, Greek revival porch, Prien was almost entirely encircled by porches, some open, some screened, and one a glassed-in sunroom. Upstairs was a balcony and three bedrooms. All of the furniture was old–wrought iron bed frames and turn-of-the-century marble-topped vanities that would cost a fortune today, and all of it etched with a natural shabby chic finish from the damp lake air.
The house remained locked up most of the year. So our trips always began with Mom and me at the nearby laundromat washing sheets and towels. I’d sip a Pop Rouge soda on the stoop of the laundromat, watching cows in the adjoining pasture while we waited for the sheets to dry. Before long though, we’d settle in, the year’s dust swept out and a summer breeze blowing in like a trumpeter: Vacation had begun.
Today my vacations look very different.
We stay in hotels overlooking huge, zero-entry, sparkling swimming pools with tumbling waterfalls, or we book luxe condos where laminate countertops are considered slumming it. I never clean upon arrival. Everything shines, even the bathtub, on a stage under a spotlight. Champagne can be icing beside me with just the press of a button. I mean, really. What the hell, Annie? At Prien, I’d swim all day in murky water, the slimy bottom of the lake nothing more than an afterthought. I’d shower on the back steps of the house with a bar of Ivory soap I kept on a rock. I caught crabs and trapped bugs. I followed lizards in between the leaves of the aspidistra. I lived a little filthy and slept a little sweaty. Yet, I remember it as idyllic.
I believe that it actually was idyllic, that I’m not remembering it through child’s eyes. But it wasn’t so because of freedom at my fingertips, nor because of the sweeping view, and not because it was all captured in a brief, fleeting moment each year either. My present vacations are all those things.
Prien had something extra—a certain magic that lay in the purity of its intention. That little pink cottage on the lake wasn’t in competition or tried to be anything more than the humblest representation of why we get away from our ordinary lives in the first pace–to gather, to listen, to pray, to wonder, and to rest. Over the years imposing waterfront mansions slowly took the place of the camps along Prien Lake’s shoreline as the area turned residential. The little house held on. And as I bobbed on a raft after boats zipped by, listening to the water lap against the wharf, the sky preparing a magnificent sunset, a subtle yet significant whisper came to me skipping off the lake: This is enough.
It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t the chic sophistication that my children associate with vacation today, but it did the job well. I realized recently that I had never before written about Prien. Initially, I was disappointed in myself. How could something so important in my memory be overlooked? But perhaps it’s exactly because that place never beckoned attention. It lacked the certain drama of anywhere else I’ve known and kept a quiet simplicity in my mind over time, just as the house itself.
When I was in high school, termites infested Prien and we stopped going. I was getting too busy for long vacations anyway and all my siblings were working by then. Prien was like Mom’s Bay St. Louis and she’d been evicted. I was too snotty a teenager to notice her sadness. Then one day when I was in college, Mom was folding clothes and seemed strangely distant.
“You okay, Mom?” I asked.
“They’re tearing down Prien today,” she said softly.
In an instant I saw the porches, the curious window behind the sofa that overlooked the center hall, the buzzing refrigerator, and the rafters atop the bedrooms. I remembered eating my weight in boiled crabs under the ceiling fans, the antique paper dolls I played with, paper dolls that my grandmother had played with too, nights of board games, coffee on the front porch as the sun rose, and the tattered chaise lounge where I took the best naps of my life. I thought about Mom as a child. She, too, crabbed all day and waited for the fireflies at night. She, too, cartwheeled down the bluff and rested beneath the branches of the Magnolia. Like me, she didn’t want for anything more. My heart lurched. Mom was losing more than a house. Her childhood would lie in the rubble. It was the humblest of vacation homes, but it made our lives rich. And I thought how remarkable to have shared such a place as a family, a patch of earth that worked its miracle each summer and then receded until the next year, never changing, never relenting to the times, just remaining ever so. Prien was our Brigadoon. And it had vanished forever.
I know enough to know that not all humans are so fortunate to keep the same simple taste we had as children. I traded in my Pop Rouge soda for the pop of a champagne cork. Critters, all of them, give me the creeps, and I am most happy immersed in nature when I know I can return at nightfall to my air-conditioned cabin. My vacations have matured into a luxury where my grown-up fantasies of swim-up bars and room service come true, and my hearts skips a beat when I see that housekeeping has swept through my suite. But once upon a time, a grittier version of me roamed barefoot and luxuriated not in material but in emotional response. Prien was freedom. Prien was family. Prien was motivation to make it to the next summer. Prien was hope that one could always be so happy. Prien was immeasurable joy. But just like Brigadoon, Prien was remote from reality—nothing lasts forever.
I edit this blog, poolside in Orlando – another Disney trip. It’s the annual vacation my kids push through homework, exams, and practices to get to. It’s not cheap and we hustle all year to make it happen. But it’s also an artificial version of the real thing: Disney Polynesia, Disney Africa, Disney Europe. In fact, someone once told me, “Ya know for what you’ve paid all these years, you could have taken your family to actual Tahiti, not fake Tahiti.”
Fake Tahiti is exaggerated – remote from reality, transporting us to a make-believe world where everything is over the top. At first glance, it’s a stark contrast to Prien, unless I were to try to measure something immeasurable, something worth every penny and every unstamped passport page. Like Prien, our fake Tahiti elicits immeasurable joy in us.
I’m too changed to stay at a Prien kind of place today, at least not without a professional cleaning crew and an exterminator. But once upon vacation, I was able to see past the torn paint and wear to the miracle Prien produced every summer. It was family that kept it going – a shared love for place and each other that kept it from evolving into anything more than its purest intention. Eventually my kids will outgrow fake Tahiti. But wherever they vacation and however they choose to experience that time, I hope they never skip over the miracle.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.