Summer vacation! My kids were ecstatic. But I, sensing imminent anarchy, was less enthusiastic. I'd read articles featuring families on cruises, families at dude ranches, families at theme parks, families at resorts. However, I knew none of those options would be available to me this year. So what could I do to keep five kids ages nine and under happy—and my sanity intact—without leaving town or spending a wad of cash?
As usual, when I get desperate enough, I pray. Now I wouldn't say the idea that came to me was necessarily divinely inspired, but all I'd been able to arrive at on my own was locking myself in my room with a good book. So, when the tailgate scheme popped into my head, it really seemed to be an answer to prayer.
The whole plan evolved from remembering the fun our family had tailgating at sporting events. I called it the "Mystery Tailgate Adventure," but in reality it was a mini-family vacation in our own city. Its twist was to take ordinary outings and cloak them in fantasy. The trick was to do this while spending as little money as possible. With those factors in mind, I planned a week of surprise tailgate picnics, each at a different local destination.
On the first Monday of summer vacation, I loaded the participants in the car and, despite numerous pleas, refused to tell them where we were going. All but one of my kids were excited by the secrecy. Andrew, my seven-year-old, short-circuited from suspense and started hammering on the nearest object in the back seat, his twin brother, Russell, who, of course, retaliated in kind. My cheerful, "Isn't this going to be fun?" tone changed as I shot those well-worn but futile parental questions in the direction of the back seat: "Do you want me to turn this car around right now and go home? Do you want me ever to do anything nice for you again? Do you want to ruin everyone else's good time? Are you still in seat belts?"
Luckily, just as the intensity level of hammering was reaching fever pitch, we arrived at the doughnut shop. This had the effect my remarks had not: instant cessation of hostilities.
"Is this it? Is this it?" clamored Andrew.
"Be quiet! Do you want to ruin it? She'll tell us!" hissed Danny, the nine-year-old, who had known parents to return home suddenly and angrily for what seemed to be inexplicable reasons.
"Part one of the surprise!" I said, persevering through gritted teeth, wondering if this was going to work. "You get to come in and pick out which doughnut you'd like to take with us for the tailgate."
Provisions gathered, we were underway again. In a few minutes, we arrived at one of our local beaches, which had the additional advantages of play equiment, restrooms, and a large parking lot. The morning fog had lifted, the sun was shining, and the water sparkled invitingly. I parked so the van's back end faced the sand, popped open the door, spread a red-checked cloth over the cargo space, set up two folding chairs, and arranged the picnickers. I passed out napkins, doughnuts, and the Thermos of cocoa I'd brought from home.
Miraculously, peace reigned as all of us, even Andrew, enjoyed the doughnuts and cocoa. From our cozy retreat we watched the beckoning waves rolling up the sand. When we'd finished, I stowed away the edibles, retrieved a bag I'd hidden containing swimsuits, towels, and beach toys, plastered on sunscreen, and we were off.
Tailgate, Take Two…
With the first expedition voted an overwhelming success, everyone was excited about the next day's adventure, featuring croissants and lemonade in a secluded section of the Natural History Museum's parking lot, followed by a tour of this favorite spot. Wednesday was homemade muffins at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in the hills above the city and a hike through the garden down to the creek. By Thursday, Andrew demanded, "Blindfold me! I don't want to know anything!" So off we drove with all kids blindfolded, including two-year-old Dara. That day, to the staff's amusement, I led the blindfolded group through my husband's office where they unmasked for a tailgate picnic downtown with food supplied by Dad.
The last day was our extravaganza, a tailgate at the Santa Barbara Zoo with bagels and cocoa. This turned out to be a bit more of an extravaganza than I'd planned, though. I was persuaded to continue the zoo theme with a trip to a pet shop. "Okay, but only goldfish," I stated firmly. Three hamsters, hamster cages, hamster food, and one goldfish later, we arrived home.
I tallied up the week's results: The kids were happy, I was happy, the hamsters seemed happy—we'd had a wonderful time.
Mystery Tailgate Adventures turned out to be a great way to jump-start our summer and began a tradition of at least one adventure each year. I didn't initiate Mystery Tailgate Adventures to create memories, start a family tradition, or to nuture bonds between my children. I was simply trying to avoid days of bickering amid half-eaten bowls of cereal, video-game stupor, and home decorating by Lego. However, what I learned as I heard my children beg for another excursion and watched them continue games begun on our outings was that our Mystery Tailgate Adventure had surpassed my expectations. It had, in fact, done for our family what vacations are supposed to do: It gave us a break from routine, provided new experiences, strengthened bonds between us, and was just plain fun. The idea was worth all the planning and a true answer to prayer. I've only one complaint: Since no detail is too small for God, I wish he'd made sure we picked out three male hamsters.
Pamela Shires Sneddon, a mother of nine, lives in California.
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