What Patrick and Nana did on our summer vacation
I really appreciated the view of Manhattan across the harbor from our top-floor hotel room in Weehawken, N.J. Ten-year-old Patrick and I both reveled at our luck in being lodged so close to the city, with such an amazing view. Then, one night while we were standing together gazing at the breathtaking skyline, the city suddenly went dark. New York simply disappeared.
It stayed dark for about 10 minutes. My knee-jerk reaction was both panic and a sense of fierce patriotism. It was a freaky blackout, caused by a storm, though emergency lighting still vaguely illuminated the upper dome of the Empire State Building. The vacuum brought back a lot of feelings for me that first surfaced during 9/11, but I kept my feelings cloaked from the impressionable grandson standing beside me – a young man born in 2001.
|View of NYC from our hotel window.|
That definitely was an emotional low point in my two-week adventure with Patrick. That, and the six-hour boarding delay at O’Hare. And landing at Newark in record-breaking 110-degree weather. And discovering that my rental car, a lemon, was the only available car left due to my later-than-scheduled arrival. Then I capped off the first vacation day by discovering why one should never get off the wrong ramp on the New Jersey Turnpike.
|Patrick makes it to the bakery window; Nana is still in the rain in line!||The cake that is, yes, “that good.”|
Luckily, that night when we went to bed in our beautiful Sheraton suite, I didn’t yet know that the next day we would stand in a long line for two hours in the pouring rain to get into Carlo’s Bake Shop (our destination in Hoboken) – all to buy a $50 cake (the smallest available) from The Cake Boss. But as I said, those were the few low points, and thankfully the cake was actually that good.
Now, for the high points of our adventures
Consistently and regardless of where we went, my joy was Patrick. He amused me during long car drives with “Would You Rather?” Would Nana rather jump off a low cliff and land on a bed of nails or jump off a high cliff and land in a sea of glass? Would Nana rather smell a butterfly’s butt or bust a (dance) move in public?
Determined to give him a vacation beyond his personal goal of bakery shopping in Jersey, I drove him to Point Pleasant Beach on the Jersey Shore, where he was repeatedly knocked over by six-foot waves. The ocean was in an uproar and the spectacle of him trying to outrun an incoming wall of water several feet over his head – a little guy in the little yellow life preserver that he hadn’t particularly wanted to wear – cracked me up.
We’d leave whenever he wanted, I’d promised – whether 15 minutes into the ocean or five hours later. About two hours after we hit the sand – between gasps for breaths and spitting up salty ocean foam – he sputtered, “Okay, this is a problem. I don’t know when to leave, I’m having so much fun. Really, Nana, I don’t know when to leave and go back to regular New Jersey.”
The next day, I took Patrick swimming in a lake situated in a gap in the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania. He remarked, as we approached the lake, “Sometimes there are places so beautiful that they make you feel sad. This is one of those places. I actually feel sad looking at it because it is so beautiful. I feel like I have the world behind me, standing here looking at this sight.”
|Bracing for another wave.||The place that is so beautiful it makes him a little sad. (Delaware Gap, Pa.)|
During our NJ/PA adventures, he overcame a previously paralyzing fear of flying. We then traveled by train to a ferry in New York, where Nana downed Dramamine to float to the Statue of Liberty. We toured Ellis Island. We ate hot dogs at Johnny Rockets. We petted strangers’ dogs. (Patrick is afraid of dogs, so this, too, was a big deal.) We made a few friends along the way and we ate more pizza pie than vegetables. We stayed up late, slept in, and just generally did whatever we felt like in the moment – and every day I surprised him with a new adventure.
Then we returned to Chicago, where I deposited him in his mother’s care before returning to my own world in Madison. But I still had a week left of vacation, and I missed him a lot, so, two days later ….
I drove back to Chicago and picked up my little traveling buddy and then headed for Nauvoo, Ill. My childhood family once had a river campsite near Nauvoo; in homage, I had reserved a rustic cabin – one that unfortunately fell far below my grandson’s expectations. He is a big-city child who thinks “camping” is a subpar Holiday Inn.
“This cabin is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen, with bugs,” he whined. “I’m not into old things that much. Old people, they’re okay, but that’s all. Old cabins were deserted for a reason.”
“You’ll live,” I advised, and he glumly took the hint. Still, we enjoyed reading most of Tom Sawyer and then we visited a log-cabin Mormon village with demonstrations from volunteers in period costume. However, the real high point for Patrick was a drive over the Mississippi River to a Culver’s Restaurant in Burlington so he could say he went to Iowa. He later accompanied me to my favorite Nauvoo winery, but his heart wasn’t into discovering how wine was made. “If I cared, I could look it up on the Internet.”
|It was 99 degrees outside, 52 degrees in the cave.|
So, the next day I surprised him by checking into a Best Western in Hannibal, Mo., where we walked deep into Mark Twain’s Cave. This tour restored my title as the coolest grandmother ever. The Tom Sawyer storyline was still fresh in his imagination, so the subsequent trip down the Mississippi on a riverboat to see Injun Joe’s hideaway island was also a good decision.
I also showed him the spot where his great-great-grandfather was known to have swum across the wide Mississippi to avoid the toll bridge. He laughed at my stories, indulged my craving for a huge tenderloin sandwich and strawberry pie (with homemade onion rings and a vanilla malt on the side) from the Mark Twain diner, and we were good as gold again.
Patrick was still in a good mood the next night, when we checked into a Best Western in my official hometown of Macomb. We saw omens that we were supposed to be there. For example, we strolled around the little business district and went inside a store to escape the 99-degree heat. The owner, seeing his flushed face, suggested he rest on the store’s display couch, and he plopped down next to a big doll already perched there with the nametag of “Jody.” It was the only doll in the store. Weird, eh? (Yes, I now own it.)
That evening, I took him to dinner in nearby Bushnell with all of my cousins and my Uncle Gene, the oldest living member of our family. The large group regaled him as a lost little cousin and they welcomed him “home” with open arms.
“I could feel love wrap itself around my shoulders like a blanket,” he later confessed.
The meaning of family
Uncle Gene felt a connection to the wee one, too. He asked Patrick, during dinner, if he had a girlfriend yet, and Patrick said yes, and her name was Irene. However, he admitted, he hadn’t let her know that he had a crush on her yet. He planned to “give her the news” when they turned 15 years old.
“What if she already has a boyfriend by then, because she doesn’t know you like her?” Gene challenged, winking at me.
“Then that will be her first husband and I’ll be her second,” Patrick answered calmly. “And do you know what will happen to the first husband?”
“What?” Gene asked.
|Uncle Gene and Patrick trade stories over lunch.|
“Nothing anyone could prove,” Patrick said, little Irish eyes twinkling.
“Yep, you’re one of us,” my uncle said, grinning widely.
“Too bad God doesn’t give us all a summer family pass to Heaven,” Patrick sighed, his mood suddenly solemn. He looked around the dining room and paused, reeling the rest of my cousins in. They leaned forward to hear what the little chap had to say, and he didn’t disappoint: “You have to make your own pass, you know, earning it by learning lessons in life. I already learned not to kill any animals at all, but sorry to predict that the first husband of Irene’s might have a walking accident.”
“A walking accident?” Gene asked.
“Yes. He might walk into a fight,” Patrick rejoined, setting the table into fits of laughter yet again.
“You’re an old soul,” Gene observed, and the others agreed, filling his head with stories of reincarnations and family ghosts.
Of course, those tales later kept him up past midnight. He became obsessed that night with the worry that he’d had past lives that he’d forgotten, so what if he was destined in the future to forget the one we were having? What would be the point? He couldn’t bear to forget our trip and all that we had done together over the years. It suddenly was a real fear for him.
Speaking of weird coincidences …
“‘Old soul’ is just an expression in our family,” I told him, trying to calm his anxieties. “My nana would have said I was ‘too big for my britches’ or ‘too old for the kids’ table.’ They are just using an expression. It’s not like they are psychic or connected to the dead in some way and saying that. Then it might really mean something.”
But it took a long time before he could fall asleep.
The next day, I did have a little side task I had come to town to do, and so Uncle Gene met us again so that I could lean on his shoulder while picking out a tombstone for my younger brother, who had died and was buried in Bushnell. Patrick remembered Uncle Bobby, who had visited the family in Chicago a few times, so he was moved to remark that we should add the words “beloved” on the stone – an oversight, I admit – while we were proofing the design. The lady stone salesperson heard the suggestion and turned to Patrick. She remarked, “My, you are really an old soul. I see that sometimes, but you have the oldest soul I’ve ever seen.”
His face paled and I realized in that moment that he saw her as someone connected with the dead. And so I could look forward to another long night. … Another reframing session.
Hoping to distract him later, however, as we got ready for bed, I asked him what he thought about Uncle Gene, who had presented him with a beautiful hand-carved fish that afternoon.
“Honestly, I do see him as an elderly citizen who served in a war and accomplished something in life,” Patrick replied. “The carving piece he gave me was actually one of my favorites of his whole carvings. He felt like family to me and he seemed very loved in our family. I actually felt some kind of connection to him.”
Kiss him goodnight, Irene … in Everly Park, preferably
Patrick was still thinking about Irene the next evening, however, when I took him to a little lake in Everly Park in Macomb, a beautiful site where I admitted that I used to hang out with my high school beau. “This is like I died and went to heaven!” Patrick exclaimed. “I think a place by the lake is a great place to go on a date. It’s a very romantic place and the sunset adds a nice touch to it. I’m going to bring my girlfriend here when I’m 15.”
|Patrick’s dream date destination: Everly Park.||Tour of the Webster/Blout Family Farm.|
So that was fun for him, but the best was yet to come. Before returning to Chicago, I took him to my cousin Julie’s farm. She and her husband have the second largest farm in Illinois, with millions of dollars worth of machinery, grain bins, a red Hummer, yellow Corvette, nine snowmobiles (they collect them), and lots of other vehicles. She gave him the grand tour from the back of an ATV. He was in heaven.
“How many soybeans are in that little truck wagon?” she asked, helping him up a ladder so he could peek inside. The answer was $10,000 worth. He looked out at the fields – the family owns everything within a 30-mile radius of their farm. Then she told him that they only sleep, on average, four hours a night during harvest season – for weeks on end.
Counting our blessings
“Our family is full of really hardworking people,” he marveled later, during the drive back to Chicago. “I’m glad they put out the welcome mat for me and also glad I stepped on it.”
I’m glad, too. Glad we didn’t go to Disneyland or to a concrete water park. Glad I had the privilege of remembering what it was like to be a curious child with a smitten Nana – to now have experienced both sides of that beautiful river, where the view is so lovely that it even makes you a little sad somehow ….
Yes. It is that beautiful to be Patrick’s nana.
Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.