Family: Take the Time to Be Together Now

Back view of young family with two kids on caribbean vacation

For more than ten years, our family has been going to a tiny little island for our family vacations. The island is four miles long, and there are more stray dogs and chickens than cars, and the water is the palest aqua you can imagine, dazzling and surreal. Everything is slightly damp and smells like salt and rum and french fries, and the roar of the sea against the island lulls you and makes you feel a million miles from home, which, for all intents and purposes, we are. We have no phone and no email, no keys to the little house we stay in, no car. We leave the windows open so the sea air can blow through the house, and we ride around in a golf cart and keep an open tab at the grocery store, so we can just run in for a package of English ginger nut biscuits or a six-pack of Coke. There’s a small shop that sells us fresh lobster if we go right when they’re bringing them off the boats for the day and another shop that has gorgeous, gooey baked goods.

We love it there, and there are a million reasons why.

It’s the jumble of the waves and the sand and the goats tied to stakes in people’s yards and the shimmering green-blue of the water and the smell of conch fritters dipped in their mysterious sauce that I finally discovered is just ketchup and mayonnaise – it’s those things that make it magic, that have made it the backdrop of our family’s memories for over a decade. It’s the almost deafening wind, and the chill in the air at night, and the bands and shop owners and fishermen that we see every year, and the way the clouded sky on the bay looks at sunset, and the mangroves and the stars that are clear and shining like marbles on the road to the club at night.

It’s all those things, and something else, the something that our family becomes when we are there. We’re the best version of our family there, relaxed and connected and without agenda or schedule.

We have conversations that unfold lazily and resolve over days instead of minutes. We tell stories that everyone’s already heard, and it doesn’t bother us, because we have nothing else to do and nowhere else to be. We’re irresponsible, and we make up plans as we go, and we’ve been going there long enough to have patterns just like worn spots in carpet, patterns that have become traditions, things you do without thinking, that feel familiar and meaningful. The sound of the wind and the barking dogs and the steel drums seem like our sounds, and the taste of conch fritters and rum punch and coconut bread and lobster are our tastes, the taste of vacation, the taste and smell and sound of our family.

We sleep hard because the roar of the waves on the reef keeps us sleeping like babies, and we wake up early, each finding our own spots to read and write and drink coffee before the mildness of the morning burns into the blaze of the day. On vacation, coffee is my dad’s culinary contribution, and he takes great pride in measuring the water and the coffee the night before. We eat breakfast on the porch, the screen batted by branches and stalks in the wind, the sun glinting off the water.

We rent a boat every year, and each year it varies from slightly well-loved to downright battered. We snake through the shallow areas, holding our breath, hoping we don’t bump the bottom, and we tumble over the side to snorkel when we see a school of fish or a promising reef. It’s hot until the sun goes behind the clouds, and then we’re all fighting over a few soggy towels because we’re covered with goosebumps. When we get back, we take long, hot showers until we shout to each other that the water’s going to run out.

At night, we watch movies and eat strange dinners, cobbled together out of whatever we can find at the tiny island store. On New Year’s Eve every year, we make as fancy a dinner as we can manage and eat by candlelight on the porch, and we see who can remember where we’ve spent the New Year each year – Washington D.C., and Minneapolis, and Eagle River, and then ten years here, on this lush, quirky island.

When my brother and I were very small, there was a family from the church that acted sort of like grandparents to us. The family encouraged my parents to begin taking family vacations. My parents had very little time and even less money when we were small, but at the urging of that family, we began a tradition of family vacations. Like many pastors’ families, I think, they were borrowed vacations – borrowed Suburbans, borrowed cabins and cottages, borrowed time from the church. And they were great. We have thousands of memories of family time together, thanks to the generosity of many church families.

When the husband and father of the family who first urged us toward vacations died far too young, we sat with his family at his funeral and watched clip after clip of family vacation videos. There were hundreds of photographs and bits of video, funny things and sweet things. You could see the texture of their family through those photographs, and what those images revealed was intimacy and deep love, between a husband and a wife, between parents and children, between grandparents and grandchildren.

When the funeral service was finished, our family stood off to the side for a few minutes before greeting the extended family and friends. My dad had cried a little bit as he spoke at the service, eulogizing his dear friend, but as we stood together, he began to cry in earnest, the chokes and coughs of a man who seldom finds himself so overcome by tears and unable to stop them. He pulled us into a circle, stretching his arms around us.

“We’ve got to be like that,” he choked. “We’ve got to be like them. We’ve got to take the time right now because there’s nothing more important than this.” He bent his head and cried. “We’ve got to be like that.”

Our family vacations since then have carried the weight of that day, and the weight of knowing that one day, our family will mourn the way their family did, and that we want to have the depth and breadth of memories they do. I want my children to know my parents, and not just from emails or short weekend visits. I want my dad to teach them to snorkel someday the same way he taught me, swimming just in front of me with his arm stretched out to the side, letting me hang on that arm and pulling me along with him. I want to hear every single little thing that my brother has to tell me. Todd is a man of very few words, but every once in a while on vacation he starts talking, while we’re taking the golf cart to the club, or putting away the boat at the end of the day. I can badger him via email and cell phone all year long about his life or his girlfriend or his job, and end up knowing very little, but on vacation, sometimes he gets on a roll, and I want to be there when he does, even if it means we sit on the dock till the sun sets and we’re freezing, or even if I have to play basketball with him at the court in town.

My mom and dad and brother have grown through the years into my closest friends, the people who tell me the most searing truth, who give me soft places to rest and present to me a bright future when the only one I can see from my vantage point is dim and breaking before my eyes.

Families can go either way, and I take no credit for the way we’ve gone. I accept it like a gift or a winning lottery ticket, and I hold that ticket in my hand tightly, and I take every chance I can get to be with them, for an afternoon, for a weekend, for a vacation, and every moment feels like being given one more winning ticket. We’ve invested that small island with as many memories as we can make, crammed it full of love and conversations and stories and long walks and meals and boat rides, because there will be a day when memories are all we have, and I want to know that we have more than we need to last us the rest of our lives. I want to sock away memories like gold coins because I’m going to need them someday to get me through the years.

Vacations are more than vacations, and that island is more than an island. Vacations are the act of grabbing minutes and hours and days with both hands, stealing against the inevitability of time.

There will be a day when our family as we know it will no longer exist, and I want to know in that moment that I wasn’t at the office or doing the dishes when I could have been walking on the dock with my dad, when I could have been drinking tea and eating ginger cookies on the porch with my mom. I don’t want to be building my bank account or my abs or my dream house when I could be dancing with Aaron at the beach bar on New Year’s Eve, when I could be making crackers and cheese for dinner because we were on the boat till way after the shops closed, sunburnt and sandy and windblown, and happier there and together than anywhere else with anyone else.

Watch the Video to Shauna’s Book Bread & Wine:

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Your Turn

How does your heart respond to this? Does it ache as mine does for time together with just me and my kids making memories that will last a lifetime? How does your family spend time together? What memories do you plan to make this summer? Come join the conversation on our blog! I’d love to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, FaithGateway Women

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist grew up in Barrington, Illinois, and then studied English and French literature at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. As an author and blogger, Shauna writes about the beautiful and broken moments of everyday life - friendship, family, faith, food, marriage, love, babies, books, celebration, heartache, and all the other things that shape us, delight us, and reveal to us the heart of God. Shauna is married to Aaron, who is a pianist and songwriter. Aaron is a worship leader at Willow Creek. Aaron and Shauna live outside Chicago with their sons, Henry and Mac.

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