Sometimes I think I’ve missed my calling because I would make a fantastic travel agent. Except that if my clients went off the beaten path that my OCD diligently laid out for them, I’d blow my top. This is why, during our first trip to Disney World almost ten years ago, my husband swore he’d never go back (with me, at least) and why an Easter in quarantine almost put me out to pasture.
I’m one of those strange OCD breeds, who is disorganized in the essential, everyday elements to life, but a strict drill sergeant in all non-essential areas. My mail topples over the basket of junk mail before I finally sift through it. (Oh, there’s my vehicle registration renewal!) My closet is a hazard zone, and one can often hear a muffled “help!” whenever I reach for anything on the top shelf because inevitably outdated clutches and boots come tumbling onto my head. And forget laundry. My kids haven’t worn matching socks in five solid years. But vacation? Holidays? All the fun stuff? I’m a cruise director with a clipboard of steel.
At the Disney trip in question a decade ago, we’d just ended a banner day at Animal Kingdom. The safari was a huge success -- lions, giraffes, elephants, crocodiles -- they all came out to the delight of my two little boys. The “Dinosoar” ride thrilled my four-year-old, and when we went to bed with bellies stuffed from a dinner at Boma, all seemed content in our little resort room. That is until my alarm went off at 7:30 the next morning.
“What the hell?” my husband rolled over and pulled a pillow over his ears.
“Rise and shine!”
I had a full day planned: breakfast at Ohana, followed by a monorail ride to Epcot, and each and every ride, snack, meal, cocktail, and bathroom break, perfectly coordinated on my mental clipboard of fun, culminating in a pre-bedtime dip in the resort pool after the fireworks. But my husband wasn’t having my mental clipboard. My husband just thought I was mental.
“We’re on vacation.”
“Yes, but so is the rest of the world and if we don’t get there early, we’ll have to wait for our table and that will throw off the rest of the day.”
It just made sense. Starting breakfast late would mean getting to our first ride late, thus making the casual walk through the aquarium I’d scheduled into a short skip instead, and we’d likely have to hold our pee on the ride after that because we wouldn’t have time for the bathroom break I’d planned. He could relax later. We were on vacation and that meant following scheduled fun from sunup to sundown. Otherwise, we might as well have stayed home. How could he not see the sense of it?
We were late for breakfast. The baby stabbed Pluto’s nose with a fork when we were finally seated. We barely made it to our first ride, and when we entered the aquarium, my mind was elsewhere, recalculating the remainder of the day.
I heard my husband, but I didn't really hear him. I was busy thinking that if we skipped the play area outside of “Figment,” we could still make it to all the countries in the World Showcase before dinner.
“You’re missing it.”
My husband pointed to the baby, the one who would eventually be my middle-man because unbeknownst to any of us he’d have a little sister a year later. He was pressed up against the glass of a tank, mesmerized by the schools of colorful fish swishing by. The score to “Finding Nemo” softly played overhead, making it all the more cinematic: a tiny toddler in his own little world, free of Mommy’s demands, staring up at the deep blue sea and daydreaming.
We didn’t make it to half of what I’d planned that day. We swam earlier than I’d wanted. We slept in the next day, and missed an entire chunk of Magic Kingdom because the boys were having so much fun playing at Mickey’s Toontown Fair. The back half of that vacation was so memorable that it almost made the minute-to-minute of the first half easy to forget. Almost. We return to Disney every year under one condition: “Mom, you have to let us have fun.” I have learned to not miss the unscheduled moments. Occasionally, the clipboard comes out. I mean, a reservation is a reservation. A FastPass for a ride has an expiration. There are some things I can’t control.
Like holidays during a quarantine.
My journalism professor once said, “Easter Sunday pictures must always be taken in front of azaleas.” I agreed with her sentiment. I agreed with her use of the word “must” in relation to a holiday even better. I’ve always been one to stand by traditions. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and that quality (to a fault?) has worsened since I’ve become a mother:
“You will wear your red, white, and blue swimsuit for the Fourth of July and you will like it. It’s tradition!”
“If we don’t get a picture of y’all in your costumes by 6:00, it’ll be too dark. Put the candy down, shut up, and smile. It’s tradition!”
“Take-out? Are you crazy? We always have fluffernutters for dinner on the eve of Thanksgiving. Shut up and eat. It’s tradition!”
“Don’t even think about opening those Legos Santa brought you. We have to be at your cousins’ house in an hour. Go put on that cute sweater Grandmommy sent you, the one with the reindeer and the bear….What?...I don’t care if you’re twelve. You always wear what she gives you for Christmas. It’s tradition!”
The same decorations go on the same end tables for every season every year. The menus don’t change. I always bring the pies for Christmas dinner. I always bring pulled pork to the parade route on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. My children always begin summer with a New Orleans snoball and always, always listen to “Me and Julio” in the car on the way to the pool every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. And for the love of He who has Risen, they always take their Easter pictures in front of the azaleas, wearing new spring dresses, slacks, and ties.
In my family, we also “paque” eggs on Easter -- a tradition that came to south Louisiana via the Cajuns. The game is pretty simple. It’s man-to-man, egg-to-egg. Players face off, each one with a hard-boiled egg in their fist, and they knock the ends of their eggs together. Whoever’s cracks is the loser. The game keeps going around the table until it’s finally down to one Champion Egg. For me, if pictures in front of azaleas is a must, paquing eggs is an obligation. But this year we were in quarantine. No church service to rise and shine and get dressed for. No extended family with whom to fight for the title of champion. Easter felt more like a made-for-TV movie of the week than a major holiday -- lots of hype, little to no substance. It would just be my husband and me and the kids. It had been just my husband and me and the kids on loop for a month! And my poor Mom, stuck in her little apartment in the back of my house like Baby Jane, would have to do Easter alone -- just herself and public television. Holy hell. This wasn’t Easter. This was a reality show: “The Real Prisoners of Pine Street.”
Depressed, disengaged, and apathetic, I ignored the calendar. If Easter was going to be so different, why bother?
And then The Girl, eyeing the Easter baskets collecting dust on the top shelf of my closet, innocently asked, “Mommy, why haven’t you put out our Easter baskets yet?”
She was like Cindy Lou Who approaching the Grinch. Only this Grinch stole Easter. Well, crap. My kid could see what I couldn’t. It wasn’t about the letters of the laws I put in place. It wasn’t about paquing eggs at precisely one o'clock so that the roast could come out of the oven at precisely two o’clock for the whole family to enjoy. It wasn’t about pictures and new dresses and the right brand of jelly beans. The real tradition was the butterflies in her belly before she went to sleep because the Easter Bunny would be coming, eating herself sick with chocolate the next morning, playing outside in the spring breeze, and gathering around the table to give thanks for the promise that Easter brings no matter who is present, what is worn, or what is on the menu. If you’re Christian, Easter is the promise of eternal life after death. If you’re not a Christian, Easter is a symbol of Spring’s annual renewals -- frost fades, flowers bloom, animals give birth, and the world continues to go round. Quarantines isolate people, but they can’t stop us from living.
I know enough to know that in my heart, I’m just a director, trying to stage a vision so that magic can unfold. My mental clipboard, your musts -- they are all the work of directors desperate to put on a damn good show so the audience doesn’t ask for their money back. If we didn’t try, our people would revolt. Regardless of how many times they swear they’ll never go on one of our controlled vacations again, they still rely on us to plan. And we know that. We wear that role with honor. It’s my job to establish memories. But I can’t control everything. I can’t control reservation times and, as a world community, we can’t control pandemics. It’s in times like these that we must remember why we plant traditions so deep into the ground in the first place. We want them to be part of us -- as signature as the way we walk. My daughter knew the Easter baskets needed to tumble onto my head from the top shelf of my closet and be set out, just as she knew we needed to dye eggs and paque them, even if it was just the five of us, because that’s what we do. Life goes on. Spring will follow winter. Death will not stop life.
A quarantine didn’t stop Easter from coming, and neither did this Grinch. It came with Zoom gatherings, dinner late in the day, and pictures in shorts and t-shirts in front of azaleas that I transplanted too late and were, therefore, still in shock. They have no blossoms, but tiny leaves are sprouting. Their new life is coming, probably just in time for the end of a quarantine.
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