It was the kind of early fall afternoon Bob Ross liked to capture on canvas. The leaves had begun to turn and as many lay on the ground as remained hanging from the branches, the skies were cloudy with intermittent showers and there was just enough nip in the air to call for a jacket.
I had the kids for the weekend and we would be visiting the home of a dear friend. Within moments of picking them up, I loaded the kids and some light baggage into our minivan and we hit the road.
The drive down was easy. I popped The Adventures of RoboRex into the DVD player to hold the kids’ interest. It was a lame flick and my fledgling film critics gave it the business. No stranger to the pass-time of skewering suspect cinema, I happily joined in. In no time, we were closing in on our destination, which I had kept secret from the kids.
The element of surprise is key to maintaining the twinkles in kids’ eyes, but keeping my kids in the dark about anything is a tall order. Their powers of deduction border on the clairvoyant and they always compare notes. They announced our destination even as we turned onto the street leading to it.
I called ahead to let our hosts know that our arrival was imminent. As we parked at the curb in front of the house, the kids noted that someone was already opening the front door. I hadn’t even turned the minivan’s engine off before I heard the kids unbuckling their seat belts preparing to leap from the vehicle like paratroopers.
By the time I slipped the key from the ignition, they were already tackling one of our hosts, the daughter half of a mother-daughter team that would shower us with affection for the next 40 hours. The kids and the younger of our hosts were already old pals. She was as thrilled to see them as they were her. Me? I was just the guy driving the van, a mere chauffeur.
In short order, the kids were introduced to the mother half of the tandem. They were polite as always, the corners of their mouths turned up in gentle grins and their eyes looking up at her face, which was absolutely aglow. I knew walking in the door that only the sudden and total collapse of the house could possibly spoil that weekend.
We got settled and preceded to Wii, chase, eat, bake, snack, and laugh our way into the good night. Our last official act was to fall asleep on a cushy sectional in the spacious family room as some animated variation of Star Wars played on the TV. I wanted the kids to get a good night’s sleep, so I pulled myself up by the back of my collar, grabbed them then carried them off to their sleeping quarters. It was like old times. It felt like home.
All smiles remained broad the next morning. It was a sunny day and immediately after breakfast, the kids charged through the patio door into the backyard. We did everything from tossing a football to a little horticulture to setting up an obstacle course and actually running a race!
We followed this up with a visit to a local park for some tennis and a little bike training. Afterward, our hosts privately — and gently — scolded me for being too much coach and not enough playmate. I took the criticism in the spirit in which it was offered. Anything to sharpen my daddy-game because time with the kids is so limited.
Back at the house, our younger host baked us a positively succulent turkey meatloaf for dinner. I must have had three helpings. As usual, I had plans to somehow squeeze in a work out, but after all that meatloaf, I could hardly muster the strength to sneak upstairs for an occasional glimpse of the Jets game being played that day.
As the sun set, our hosts loaded the fire pit in the back yard with logs preparatory to a farewell s’mores roast. The kids were psyched. I was psyched to see them psyched, then psyched again on my own. The next morning, I would be dropping them off at school and we would return to our lives, but that night, we would enjoy the combined warmth of our hosts and a roaring fire, and scarf down a bunch of s’mores in the bargain.
I awoke early the next morning to the anxiety that had been my near constant companion for months on end. Resigned to my fate, I prepared myself for the return to the oppressively familiar. But it dawned on me that I now had a formidable weapon to combat those feelings of dread. All I had to do was think back on the 36 hours we had just enjoyed. It had been fantastic. It had been absolutely a beacon in the darkness.
The time to hit the road had come. The goodbyes were heartfelt, the thanks expressed profound. The kids and I had, for months, been forced to do overnight visits at motels. That weekend, our hosts graciously provided us the domestic setting we needed to feel like ourselves again, less the drama, and we all had come away with an experience both rare and sublime.