Memories of a child

Remembering the little things from summer vacation


Phyllis L. Nutkis


ReaderEssay It was a warm September afternoon, and I was sitting on the porch swing with my three children, talking about our family camping trip to Niagara Falls earlier that summer. I recalled my first impressions: the sheer immensity of the falls, the thundering water, the cold spray on our faces. But as I listened to the kids, I realized they had their own unique memories—quite different from mine.

“Remember that trampoline in the campground?” Avi, then 6, asked breathlessly.

“And those bicycles that had two seats,” Shoshana, then 8, exclaimed.

“And I played with a puppy,” Ilana, 3 at the time, chimed in.

Actually, now that I thought about it, the kids had not been as impressed with Niagara Falls as my husband and I had expected.

It was a stifling Sunday afternoon in August when we arrived. The town was jammed with tourists, and we had to walk nearly a mile from the overpriced parking lot to the falls. By the time we got to the nearest viewing area, the kids were hot, thirsty and cranky. But it was cooler along the river, and the kids were captivated by the view.

For about 30 seconds.

Ilana observed the rushing water briefly from her perch on her father’s shoulders, then stated calmly, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“I know she does,” my husband told me, “because my collar is wet.”

“I’m thirsty,” Avi complained.

“Can we go now?” Shoshana whined.

The nearest restrooms were a good 10-minute walk away. There were no drinking fountains in sight. And a Coke was $2.50 at the refreshment stand.

As my husband and I pondered the situation, the kids discovered it was really fun to climb up to the top rung on the railing along the river. Bribing them with the promise of Cokes, I made them line up for a picture with the falls in the background. Then we forced them to enjoy all the other viewing areas on the Canadian side before heading back to the campground, where they wasted no time getting in line for the trampoline.

Several weeks later, after we had returned home, I was looking at the pictures from our trip. I came across the one of the kids in front of the falls. Remarkably, they were all smiling. (It may have had something to do with my threats that anyone who didn’t smile for the picture could experience—first hand—the thrill of going over Niagara Falls. Without a barrel.)

When the kids came home from school that September afternoon, Shoshana announced her best friend was going to Disneyland during winter vacation. Of course, her next line was: “Why can’t we go to Disneyland?”

I patiently explained that going to Disneyland cost a lot of money and that we didn’t have to do things just because everyone else did.

“And besides,” I added, “my parents never took me to Disneyland, and I grew up just fine.”

Later, I recounted the conversation to my mother over the phone. Her reaction took me by surprise: “Of course we took you to Disneyland. Don’t you remember?” 

Strangely enough, I didn’t, even though I was 13 at the time. I don’t know how I could forget Disneyland, but maybe it’s because there were other parts of the trip that seemed more special. And those I remember quite clearly.

I remember the oppressive heat as we drove through the California desert in the summer of 1964, my brothers and I crammed in the back seat, the skin on our legs sticking to the vinyl.

I remember my father taking a picture of us standing next to a tree at the Grand Canyon. We were least ¼-mile from the actual canyon rim, but my mother was still terrified we’d fall over the edge.

And I remember the night we drove through the desert, eventually stopping at a campground in New Mexico. My father parked the car and turned off the headlights. It was completely and utterly dark. All we could see were a million stars, stretching to the horizon all around us. We stood there in complete silence for several minutes. I felt as if I were standing on top of the world.

My mother remembers Disneyland—but she doesn’t remember any of those things.

The memories I’ve saved are of the little things, the things that must have seemed ordinary to an adult, but were wondrous and precious to a child. Undoubtedly, my parents thought they were giving me something very different to remember.

And now the cycle has begun again. When we look back on that family vacation at Niagara Falls, my children, now all grown up, may not remember the crashing water or the thrill of donning yellow raincoats and walking through the tunnels under the falls. But they’ll remember that trampoline for a long time.

And now, so will I. 

Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher living in Skokie. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.

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