The Worst Vacation Days (Sometimes) Make the Best Memories

Amy Challenger honestly

We were about to travel to see butterflies. It seemed like the right thing to do, since from the window of our vacation rental home in Holland Michigan, the landscape looked like someone had forgotten to switch the lights on that morning. The tall oak and maple trees drizzled leftover raindrops, and even the cute cottages perched on the sandy dunes looked fatigued. Butterflies might fix things, I thought.

The kids whined, “What are we doing today?”

“We’re going to that cool museum in Grand Rapids! The one with the butterflies!” I knew better than to sound so suspiciously sugary, but I couldn’t help it. We’d traveled from Switzerland to Connecticut to Chicago to Michigan to visit family and have a “really cool vacation”; like typical parents, my husband, Lynn, and I were resolute on finding unique things to do, every day. So into the rental minivan we crammed our 11-year-old, 10-year-old, 8-year-old, their grandmother Nana and grandfather Poppy. I dove into the third row to prevent problems from cropping up; Nana positioned herself in the middle row; Lynn drove and Poppy sat in the passenger seat.

“How long will this ride take?” asked my 8-year-old daughter.

“Only an hour.” I murmured.

“How long?”

“An hour.” I said louder.

“An hour?” she shouted back. “Awww.”

“Look at how beautiful the lake looks after the rain,” I tried. No reply. “Grand Rapids is where I grew up,” I continued. But nobody wanted to listen to me reminisce. About three minutes down the road, the argument began, though I’ve forgotten what it was about. Probably someone sucked on his or her lips too loud or hummed a tune off-key or somebody burped or bumped somebody’s elbow. But the bickering quickly rose above my chatter and escalated into a special kind of thunder. Around the first bend, came the slap (I’ll not say from whom), followed by the howl, the growl and a couple more hands flying. A few additional minutes into the journey, a barrage of loud, unfiltered remarks assaulted us. Then came the returning socks and jabs aimed at an arm or shoulder or cheek maybe. About 30 seconds later we pulled off the road. At this point, I imagined that we were only a short bike ride or long jog from the rental where we’d begun. (Sadly, I was not wearing my running shoes and I had no bike.)

Here, my husband proclaimed the options for continuing our vacation. We could go home or we could be kind and see butterflies. I don’t know if anyone heard him because more insults erupted over his attempts at vacation restoration. This time the bad words (I think I recall a “shut up”) targeted Daddy, which meant that Poppy couldn’t hold back a few exaggerated “harumphs” and gasps.

I couldn’t avoid contributing, “Poppy!! Stay out of it please.”

“Well,” said Poppy as the van doors glided opened and a tangle of hair and fists and shrieks emerged from the car. Nana, I think, had her hands over her head and her eyes closed and may even have been ducking down. At this point, I wondered if neighbors or a policeman would get involved. We were a vacationing expat nightmare family tumbling through a quiet American Christian town.

“Stop this now. We’re going home,” said my double extra large husband. His voice can make clocks stop ticking when it needs to.

And here, thank God, things finally got quiet. “Going home?” they asked. “No butterflies?”

“Going home.”

I swear the sun came out then, and I felt my chest fill with the smell of stale tortilla chip minivan air that actually didn’t feel that bad. We could have pushed through to the museum, but what remotely sane parent would really want to?

On the way back to our rental cottage, I distributed the consequences to the children while the sun continued to rise over the lake turning everything an idyllic vacation blue. Upon arrival at the cottage, one child traipsed up to her room shouting out injustices through tears, one trudged down to his den blaming everyone but himself, and the one who’d avoided all the trouble went outside to play football with Daddy as a reward. Nana and Poppy went off to go kayaking.

And me? I sat in a large faded floral print chair, munching on a piece of chocolate sea foam (which I can only find in Holland, Michigan at the peanut store). I caught my breath in the luxurious silence while gazing at the sun peeking through relieved-looking tree branches. Maybe I’d go for a swim later. There were no butterflies in the room, but the dark chocolate sure tasted good. I recalled the last 20 or so minutes with a giggle. It was possibly my very best worst day of summer vacation. And I would never forget it.


Amy Aves Challenger is an American expat and writer/artist living in Switzerland. She is a contributor to The MOPS Magazine and The Huffington Post. Amy mostly writes about topics relating to the marginalized, families and nature. She has been published in The Washington PostMamalode.com, and Brain, Child Magazine and her poems and short story were published in an anthology by Kind of a Hurricane Press. Her poetry can be read almost daily on Twitter @amychallenger and Instagram.