Backseat whiners: Curtis Gillespie on the formative value of the family vacation


First aired on The Current (01/04/12)

Travel delays, puking children, piercing headaches, whines and squabbles, lost luggage -- just a few of the reasons you might need a vacation from your family vacation. Edmonton author Curtis Gillespie argues that those nightmare stories eventually turn into cherished family memories, and even if they don't, the shared trauma of car sickness et al. is an important part of the family experience.

His new book, Almost There: The Family Vacation Then and Now, is about the history of the "family vacation." It opens with a story from his own childhood about a six-week-long family road trip to Mexico when he was about 14. "My parents were very adventurous people," he told The Current guest host Erika Johnson in a recent interview. "I was the oldest of six kids, so there were eight of us in a station wagon from Calgary to Mexico City. What could go wrong?"


His mother had been amassing a collection of comics and puzzle books to keep the kids occupied on the long ride. So far, so good. Unfortunately, Gillespie was prone to motion sickness, and he was sitting next to the massive box of distractions. "We weren't an hour out of Calgary before I threw up all over the comics right into the box," he said, laughing at the memory now. "We had to pull over, my dad threw the box into a ditch, every person in the car hated me! I hated myself! We were 80 kilometers into an 8,000 kilometers drive, so it was not the most auspicious start."

Fortunately, the trip continued and became memorable in a good way. Gillespie writes that such vacations -- foibles and all -- are extremely important to the family unit. "As we're growing up, we're trying to figure out who we are as inviduals within a family," he said. "Which means we are therefore trying to figure out what a family is, what is this family unit? And the family vacation is very important because it's a moment in time...where we don't have to think about school, work, housework. It's just the family. We're just all there together, and it's really just a very concentrated time where we think about what it means to be a family."

But surely you can think about being a family without being carsick. Why are vacation "low-lights" so important to build the family experience? "We all remember things that we survive," said Gillespie. "They forge us, they help make us who we are. Sometimes when things go wrong on a family vacation...we learn things about ourselves and about our family, and that often happens when things go sideways."

And the fact that so many family vacations are road trips is important, too. "[The car] played a crucial role in the development of the family vacation, if you look at the history of the family vacation," said Gillespie. "It was a slow-growing phenomenon up until just after the Second World War." That's when cars became widely available, and most people were given mandated time off. "Suddenly people had time off and a cheap way to get around," he said. "That was really the flowering of the family vacation."

Gillespie also points out the confining symbolism of the car in relation to the family vacation. "You're kind of trapped with each other," he said. "At least that's how I felt — six weeks in a car with eight people and two chain-smoking parents!"

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