Ornament from Mt. Rushmore (1993)

Walk around our Christmas tree and you can tell in an instant everywhere we’ve taken the kids over the years.

There are Colorado skiers, shells we bought on Sanibel Island in Florida, a sailboat from a Maine Windjammer trip, a Hula skirted Santa from Hawaii, Beefeaters from London, Tinkerbell from Orlando.

Until the kids finally insisted I stop buying ornaments wherever we went, I’d buy one for each of them wherever we went.  The sillier the better.  And even now years later, they make me smile and bring back memories—the real memories of traveling with kids.

–The Santa from Hawaii was from a trip when my 16-year-old son Matt spent his entire time on the cell phone with his girlfriend.

–Tinker bell was from a trip to Disney when my youngest daughter Melanie was frightened of all the characters.

–The Beefeater was a trip when my son Matt was eight and preferred chasing pigeons in London’s parks to anything else.

–The Eiffel Tower—when my tween daughter Reggie preferred flea markets to museums in Paris.

–The Bison was from a trip to South Dakota where the kids lost interest in Mount Rushmore as soon as they realized they couldn’t climb it.  The did like seeing the bison in Custer State Park

Ornament from trip to Paris in 1998

And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Of course none of our many trips turned out as planned.  Of course the kids led me in directions I never expected.  That was the beauty of it.

I hope you have ornaments on your tree that help you remember your family travel adventures.  I’d mark each one with the child’s name and year.  There were Kangaroos and Koalas from a trip to Australia, bears and whales from Alaska, brightly colored fish from sailing trips to the Caribbean that featured a lot of snorkeling.

This year Matt’s girlfriend Emmie helped us decorate the tree and loved hearing the stories of all of our misadventures.  I hope someday, our kids will tell their kids the same stories as they put up the same ornaments.  It’s really about the journey, after all.

And I feel like all those ornaments are tangible proof of the value of travel—that those trips, especially the misadventures, helped my kids to grow up to be confident adults who relish getting out of their comfort zones to explore new places, whether a culture half a world a way or the back country on a back packing trip.

Grinch from Universal Orlando

I smile when I find a canoe from our trips to Minnesota when the kids were small.  The kids still like to tease me about getting “lost” on the lake in that canoe.  There’s Mel’s hula girl from the trip to Kauai when it rained non stop and the Cape Cod Lighthouse—that was the trip we forgot Reggie’s suitcase at home.  We forgot Mel’s ski jacket one trip to Colorado too (and we have the little skier girl to remind us.)

When I look at the ornaments, I remember what went wrong on our travels as much as what went right and we all know those are the times the kids remember most—the time 12-year-old Mel got lost after she’d stalked off on a hike in Colorado; the time Matt had a time-out at Glacier National Park because he pushed his little sister into a frigid glacial lake; the time Reggie went to the wrong NYC airport and missed her connection to meet us in Ecuador.

Of course everything always worked out in the end and the misadventures along the way make the memories that much richer.  We travel to help build family bonds and it’s those times—not the photo with the latest Disney princess or in front of Old Faithful—that keeps them in our minds.

Those ornaments remind me of so many teaching moments on our travels—to cope when plans go awry, to pull together, to be willing to challenge ourselves, whether in a place where no one speaks English or on a hiking trail. That Eiffel Tower reminds me of my girls trying frogs legs and escargot for the first time. The Grinch from Universal Orlando reminds me of overcoming my own fear of roller coasters at the park that’s known for them. 

I think all the misadventures also help us all appreciate the rare times on a family vacation when everything does go as planned, when no one is bickering or sulking, when the sun is shining, when you haven’t gone over budget, when you get that I-can’t believe-we’re-here-sharing-this-experience  feeling.    

We had a few moments like that this year and I hope you did too. Cherish them and all the imperfect moments too.

Happy Travels in 2013