Small Wonders: The problem with family vacations

Here’s the problem with vacations with extended family: all those family members.

Having young children, we appreciate the importance of building memories for them; of big family gatherings that permanently frame snapshots to hang on the wall and gaze upon warmly in later years. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

But it is fun just to get away for a weekend with everyone. So we went across the sea.

Twenty-six miles across the sea,


Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me,

Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance....

I’m sure the romance is there if you look for it. Perhaps it was more evident 50-some years ago when the Four Preps immortalized it in song. What’s there mostly now is tourism. But I’m not complaining.

Not only is Catalina Island the storied playground in the Pacific for celebrities of a bygone era and a popular recreational escape for everyone else ever since, it’s also steeped in childhood memory for me as the place my father lived for a few of my formative years.


In visions that are half-dream/half-real, I walk the streets of Avalon next to my father and know for a weekend the fullness of having him in my life. Then I catch the last boat back to the mainland on Sunday and see him waving back at me from the dock. Until my next visit.

And for this visit, 35 years later, I came with my wife, kids, nieces, nephews, their grandparents and a sibling.

It’s hard enough to navigate my family of four through summer crowds. But with an extended brood it’s impossible. Ten different whims, desires, cravings, yearnings, emotions and directional challenges in one meandering, chaotic flock. It’s a miracle we didn’t kill each other or purposefully leave anyone behind.

Not that I didn’t try.

But such trying times are fertile ground for memories to take root.

It will forever be the place that Thing 1 bravely fought off her fears and went parasailing for the first time. OK, we forced her. But she loved it and went again with her cousin later that same day.

Thing 2 and I will always have the postcard moment in our kayak as we followed a pair of friendly, playful sea lions across the bay.

I never missed an opportunity to point out the ubiquitous Garibaldi, overgrown goldfish lingering by docks and along the rocky coast, just as my father did when I was a boy.


At night there was the Flying Fish Boat. Silver bullets skimmed the surface of the ocean lit by spotlights and chased by pelicans; feeling the cool mist and seeing those strange pinpricks of light in the sky. Oh yes, stars.

A golf-cart ride down memory lane and all over town took us past buildings and shops that are specters from my past; fragments of a long ago reverie. The diner my father took me to where I got sick — the first and last time I ordered chocolate-chip pancakes — the candy shop where we got the best saltwater taffy ever; around the iconic casino, an unchanged fixture in time.

Two grandmas danced down the boardwalk while the outdoor band played, much to the embarrassment of their preteen granddaughter. Next time we’ll limit them to one margarita.

And at day’s end, Ruckus card games late into the night; yelling, cheering, teasing, loving; arguing over unwritten rules, hotly debating the difference between the “6” and “9” cards.

That’s family: frustrating, infuriating, jovial and eternally, unbreakably tight-knit.

Memories of places we’ve been — of people who’ve come and gone and come back again in our lives — turn to scars. Permanent, unavoidable ingredients of life; islands of fondness and frustration in the sea of complexity that is time.

We do our best to be good parents, uncles, aunts, sons, siblings and daughters. Often failing, but never stopping; forgiving and begging forgiveness; laughing boisterously at and with each other; hurting each other, crying, getting over it and moving on so we can laugh again.

Memories are like those Garibaldi: always lingering nearby, beneath the surface, a protected creature somehow aware that we can’t change them or harm them. But we can watch them, joyfully.


You don’t know you’re making memories until you see grandma screaming 800 feet off the deck of a parasail boat, or until you find yourself running back off the departing ferry to find the painted starfish souvenir your daughter left on a promenade bench.

So here’s the best thing about extended family vacations: all those family members. Whether they were there or not.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of “Crooked Little Birdhouse: Random Thoughts on Being Human.” Contact him at Read more at