From our trip to France in 1998

Our tree is loaded down with skiers from Colorado, shells from Florida, sailboats from Maine, ferries from Washington state, flip flops from Hawaii, monkeys from Costa Rica, Victorian queens from England, fish from Caribbean islands, Disney characters from Orlando…you get the idea.

Wherever I travel, I’m compelled to bring home an ornament or two or three.

“Enough, already!  My youngest daughter Melanie says, wearily eyeing the pile of holiday ornaments with her name on them. “This is getting ridiculous!”

Her older brother and sister agree. Now, if I want to buy a new ornament when we’re away from home, I have to do it stealthily without anyone noticing or they’ll stop me in my tracks at the checkout line.

It started when the kids were small. We’d pick out one inexpensive ornament for each of them wherever we were traveling, the sillier the better (no hand-blown balls for us) and mark them with the year, the place and child’s name.  I bought kangaroos and koalas in Australia, moose and maple leafs in British Columbia, yet more bears in Alaska.

From trip to Mt. Rushmore in 1993

The good news: When I get them out months later (if I can remember where I’ve stashed them), they help us remember those trips. Invariably, we laugh about our misadventures there.  At least that’s the idea, though my husband agrees with Mel that at this point, I should quit buying more.

“But they make us laugh,” I protest.  Some day, I hope, the kids will laugh when they put those same ornaments up in their homes. And though two are out of school and living on their own, thney haven’t yet asked for their cache.

I smile when I find Matt’s fisherman from one of our first trips to a Minnesota lake: I spent a lot of that vacation threading my little preschooler’s hook with worms.  The kids still tease me about the trouble I had maneuvering our canoe back to the dock.   There’s Mel’s hula girl from Hawaii (when it rained a lot in paradise) and Reg’s Eiffel Tower ornament from Paris (the trip she was much more interested in shopping than the museums and churches I’d planned to show her).

I’m grateful for the tree full of silly ornaments and the memories they mark…from Orlando to Oregon, Cape Cod beaches to Newport Beach, Alaska to Australia.  I think the kids are glad too, though they tease me mercilessly about them and complain about putting them up and taking them down.

When I take those ornaments out, I’m remembering trips long gone and what went wrong as much as about what went right.  Many times of course, those are the times the kids remember the most–the time Matt fell out of a bunk bed on a ski trip to New Mexico and Reggie fell out of a raft in the middle of a rapid in British Columbia (that was really scary!), the time we set out on the Appalachian Trail and got totally drenched before we’d gone even a couple of miles or the time we found ourselves driving in a Lake Tahoe blizzard; The time Mel got lost hiking in Colorado  and  the time I got food poisoning in Mexico and the kids had to take care of me.

Grinch from Universal Orlando

Families travel to help build family bonds and it’s those times —not the picture with Minnie Mouse or in front of Old Faithful—that cement them.

Looking at all those funny ornaments makes me realize just how many teaching moments our far-flung travels have provided — to cope when plans go awry, to switch gears, to learn to pull together.

Besides, those times when things don’t go as planned make us appreciate those few perfect vacation moments all the more—when the kids aren’t bickering, the sun is shining and you haven’t had to use your credit card all day.

We had a few moments like that this year too—and I’m sure you did too.

Cherish them-and all the messy, imperfect moments too.