Traveling With Children

Last spring when I was going to take four of my children to Europe by myself for reasons that the rational mind rejects outright, nobody said, “I wish I were going with you,” or even, “How nice!” Some twitched. Now, however, I am treated like a professional survivor, and in this college town that we live in, where many fathers get a year’s fellowship to someplace else, mothers are coming to me for helpful hints, even to get to Newark, New Jersey.

To make a success of a trip to Newark with children is beyond my competence. But to Europe, where longing and its satisfactions meet, where they will conjoin finally after the endless time one has saved and planned — for that success with children, one must start early. The parent should begin when the child is born, look at that baby and think, “This outrageous little creature is going to put a crimp in our plans for wandering through foreign climes. How best to turn him into a pleasant sort of traveling companion?” It takes a pretty cool head.

It would not be good to travel with children who whine in adversity, who make a fuss about food, or whose manners are bad. One will immediately see the advantages to this system of child training even when not traveling. Our first two babies were born under the bloom of permissivism, however, and at that time it looked as though we were repressing them. Now, when everybody is anxious to toughen up the American parent, encourage him to assert himself, it is easier to stand up for quiet, order, and other civilized amenities. The fact is, though, that we did repress our children, and we are still doing it.

But they do travel well. They never even make a fuss about the Jersey Turnpike, which can’t be said of their parents, and each of tHe little ones in turn has moved from zwieback to fried clams with hardly a change of color. Every summer we take the trip from western Massachusetts to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the children unaccountably seem quite wild about tire ride, but I think that last time I must have got a touch of hysteria from throughways that reactivated my Europe dreams. What I needed was a smaller land mass, something compact and without throughways, and I reflected that since the children were so pleasant about driving past nothing at all, they would be quite excited about a continent jammed full of things to look at.

Their father, however, if he believes anything at all, believes that children belong in America. It is the most patriotic thing about him. Besides which, he himself yearned for fabled Samarkand, where I certainly wouldn’t want to take a small child, because of the undertainty about food, heat, and so on. But that summer, as I lay under the same inverted cup the French call le ciel, on the white and empty sands of Kitty Hawk, I thought the only thing between me and Europe was that ocean, that heaving, buoyant, vast but not endless ocean. And my mind cut through the obstacles like the prow of a great ship through that sea: the papa could go to Samarkand, and I would take the children to Europe, and by thus saying, I infused myself with a euphoria that lasted nine months until the day we sailed, and as someone remarked to me, “It’s instead of having another baby, isn’t it?”

It is actually more expensive, even if I figure on four years of graduate school, and this in spite of the extreme modesty of our accommodations. In fact, at one hotel in Provence, the proprietor herself said to me, “Madame, frankly I am surprised you would bring children here.” I was uneasy about our fellow guests and the night noises, but the girls loved it, laughed about the lumps in their beds, and, of course, were not forever squinting to discover whether quite large insects could crawl up bed legs. We changed our plans only when I saw they could.

Nine months of making plans on this side of the Atlantic were all undone on the other. Nobody has come to me about plans, lucky for them, only about how I managed the children. “Madam, what age child do you have in mind? I go up to twelve.” Julie was just twelve, and allowed to cost the full fare. That is the coming of age for crossing the Atlantic as for going to the movies, but unlike the movies, where when it is your own allowance you wriggle and say you are eleven and a half, they don’t ask, they look at the passport. But Julie was worth it, and Maggie at eleven was half price and a real bargain. Jenny was seven and a half and Nora four. They were, all of them, stolid, breezy, marvelously uncritical. It never once occurred to them that this was a mad trip, that their mother was out of her mind. They moved through the itinerary like a small proud fleet, and all I did was to buoy up that littlest ship with what you might call bribery.

In fact I had every reason to believe that the price of taking the children with me, if you don’t count money, was going to be Nora’s milk teeth, but then, I thought, she was the only one ol us who was going: to get a whole new set. I certainly understood how bad gum, candy, and soda pop were for children, but it wasn’t the stulf they drank so much as the gum Nora chewed that made me fear, after a while, that to look into her mouth was to find only a tongue. And here I don’t mean one piece of gum. She regularly went through live or six packages a day, and as she gained a certain confidence in this infinite and miraculous supply, she made an ever more eager tourist.. Whenever she began to flag, somebody tossed her a fresh package, and for an hour or more she was occupied with peeling off the wrappers and chomping on the next stiff stick. I got all the trash, for Nora was ready as any to Keep Britain Tidy, and my pockets bulged with the refuse. Her Majesty’s Department of Sanitation could have turned me upside down twice a day.

Toward evening, from exhaustion in the jaws and legs, she would need to be carried, and I made a sincere effort to be back where we were staying by that time. We weren’t always. Once we were in Warwick Castle, out of gum and halfway through a few hundred rooms, a guide in front of us, a guide in back, and all escape routes blocked. With

Nora around my neck, my mind moved from history to sitting or even lying, but although there were several bedrooms, and we were even invited to feel how hard the beds were, we were not allowed to get in them. It is a lovely castle, and the guide told us that the Warwick family still lives in a part of it. “they being on the winning side of the war, as against those that lived in Kenilworth.” Kenilworth Ruins, it’s called, with the sky for a roof and grass carpeting the ballroom, while at Warwick, the guide told us proudly, “there are thirty peacocks on the lawns.”

“Thirty peacocks!” exclaimed an incredulous voice in the pause that followed, and it came from my arms, from the archtourist Nora.

She may never forget Warwick, the Day the Gum Ran Out; or again, she may never forget the whole trip, because once we were home the supply dried up for good.

With Jenny the problem was not how to enlist her interests but how to refine her responses. Flush from the triumphant accomplishments of second grade, she was ready to throw her energy, her whole solid self, into whatever happened to surround her. A crypt was to hide in, a cathedral column was to put one’s arms around, there is only one place to go in a double-decker bus and that is up. The ruins of Kenilworth were what one could climb over and crawl through and get to the top of, but not what one could fall off and break one’s neck from, she thought. I thought one could. So I looked, instead, at the view from the ramparts I clung to.

Sevenand eight-year-olds are doers, participators. We had no more than got off the boat at Southampton when Jenny tripped on a pebble, picked it up, and began her rock collection. I did not think, a mother’s heart fluttering, that child has a geological bent. I thought, the only thing our suitcases don’t have in them is rocks. This urge in the child is merely an expression of man’s primitive desire to make part of himself that which he has witnessed, and when the child gets older and has to carry his own luggage, he sublimates the need to incorporate the very ground he has trod and buys postcards instead.

Jenny did take to postcards but never quite gave up the rocks, and in England, where I always wore my travel coat tightly buttoned over two sweaters, I got a little saddlesore on my hipbones from the rocks in my pockets. Her great moment came in Stratford-on-Avon when the taxi drove us into the gravel driveway of our hotel. Jenny gasped a this-is-my-Troy, this-is-my-Pompeii gasp and spent two lovely twilight hours sifting through the gravel until Horrible Hogg, the proprietor, made her put her five choice specimens back and banished her to the gardens. This gravel incident was a straw in the wind, so to speak, for Hogg had a terribly grudging soul and counted not only the pebbles on his driveway but the crackers under one’s cheese. That people came back to his place year after year is because the English like to endure things, and its hostile emanations bind the guests together in mutual sympathy. Very warming, this sympathy, and when we left after a week, we all hugged good-bye and were sad to leave. Jenny scooped up a fistful of gravel, slammed the door, and we were off.

Girls, of eleven and twelve are not a problem of maneuver and compromise, but a lovely pleasure. They are at an unselfconscious age, able to move easily through strange towns, look and listen attentively, and try out their foreign phrases, with only their smiles a little shy. And they are quite tireless. Julie and Maggie had an absolutely inexhaustible interest in every square foot of foreign soil and are to this day dazed and bewildered by my capacity to skip three of the six preserved houses thought to have been lived in or visited by William Shakespeare or his relatives. They didn’t skip any. And they made the least jaded of audiences and were the very furthest from suspecting that tourism is an industry inspired by the profit motive. The historical chitchat with which the guides amuse their busloads entirely engrossed them. Henry VIII was a serial story of the most handsome horror that played itself out between some of the very walls we walked. Becket was not murdered there, where the movie had it, but here, where the bloodstains were. Some people could still see the bloodstains. All my children could.

They were my moral support, the older girls. One day, when all our plans collapsed abruptly, I passed hours of silent panic between the bank and the French tourist office and was a witch with the children. Toward evening we went to a supermarket to buy forks and spoons and vinegar and oil, and I was feeling quite calm once more, having decided how to keep them fed — by picnic. Julie was counting out five plastic bowls and five plastic cups, and she looked up at me with her sweet, encouraging smile and said. “See, all you need is to have your confidence and then everything is fine.”

What confidence I had was borrowed. There are a lot of women goose enough to waste half a trip worrying about whether their feathers look fluffy, which I know is true because I am one. But as mother goose, my own unconfident self hidden by my young, I peered unabashed past those bobbing heads, talked French unblushing with my best accent, and was treated with great kindness and courtesy especially in France, even without smile tickets. They may not have Mother’s Day over there, but they have a sentimental old-world tenderness about mamans that quite shook me up.

I only mean to indicate by all of this that properly intimidated children between the ages of four and thirteen, driven by a singleminded mother using threats and bribery, may make a grand tour indeed. To take them when they are younger is of course no good, and you never know, when they move into the teens, when they will turn self-conscious and drop you. Our Tony, who was fifteen and spent a few days with us in France en route to where he was going, found us humiliating. Actually, the hardest age to be in a group like that may be thirty-eight. What I missed was my husband, somebody my own size.

It would have been a very different trip had I gone with him. I would have seen more paintings, climbed over fewer ruins, it any, gone to bed later, laughed a lot more about ourselves, other people, other nonsense. The very delight of the girls, on the other hand, was sobering. Whatever purpose I intended for myself from this trip got lost early, but the impressions made upon the older girls particularly were so fine, and went so deep, that the shift I had to make away from my own interests was rewarded by the idea that I had inadvertently done something remarkable for them. Irrepressible is the mother in me.