Every so often my 11-year old gets nostalgic for her lost youth (“back when I was a kid” as she calls it) and we pull out old movies. This led to a recent viewing of Finding Nemo. Despite having seen this movie approximately 5 MILLION times, for some reason, one scene, in particular, caught my attention this time around.
If you’ve seen it as many times as I have, you might remember the scene where Marlin and Dory attend a “Fish-eaters Anonymous” meeting in the wreck of an old World War II battleship and Dory, ever the optimist, sees unexploded bombs floating on long chains. She exclaims, “Oh look! Balloons!” Of course, the “balloons” go off a few scenes later and mayhem and an obligatory shark chase ensue.
The term that actually came to mind was “lead balloons.” We most often hear this term when someone says that a situation or event “went over like a lead balloon.” Meaning that it failed – or at least didn’t get the response hoped for. (Example: “Wow, my thirties really went over like a lead balloon.”)
The scene struck me because I’ve been reflecting on my parenting experience a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s because my kids are all entering new phases. Or maybe it’s just that now that everyone has finally gone back to school, I have a full three minutes to myself between the bus stop and my house. Whatever it is, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the past – and how many “balloons” there have been along the way.
The thing is, I started this whole parenting experiment with big plans. I have never wanted anything more than for my children to be able to look back on their childhood and think, “Wow. That was awesome.” And time after time, I have spent endless energy trying to plan things that would fulfill this goal – only to be left with a giant lead balloon at my feet.
As I was thinking about this, I remembered my daughters’ spring break the first year we moved back to the States after living in West Africa. They had been through a lot. Obviously, there had been some major moves. And then there was my ex-husband’s and my separation. I had been on my own with the girls for nearly nine months while my ex stayed in Africa, and at that point, I needed, more than anything on the planet, to get out of town.
The logical thing to do would have been to drive to my parents’ house three hours away. I could have enjoyed late mornings, home-cooked meals and some extra hands to take care of the girls. So naturally, I took all three girls to Disney World instead. By myself.
No worries, though. I had planned this thing to the last detail. It was going to be perfect because it was Disney and Disney is the most magical place on earth. We had reservations at one of the park’s resorts for five days with a 9 am check-in the first day and I wasn’t going to miss a moment. Instead of driving through the night and arriving at 9 am, we planned to stay in Orlando just outside the park the night before. We would be at check-in bright and early and at Cinderella’s castle by 10 am. Boom. Brilliant plan.
I had booked the Orlando hotel online. The pictures looked wholesome enough and given the location, just outside of the bubble that is Disney World (again, the most magical place on earth), I figured it would be fine. And it was…until we got off the exit and saw what I can only assume was a drug deal going down outside of the first of at least 20 strip joints standing between us and the hotel.
You might have turned around at this point. And maybe I should have, but I carried on to the regal-sounding “Knight’s Inn” anyway. It turned out to be conveniently located next to the “Cowgirl Saloon.” For the record, I don’t think there were actual cowgirls there, although the giant flashing neon sign quite emphatically stated that they were, in fact, “Girls, Girls, Girls.”
When we pulled into the parking lot, my oldest daughter quietly said, “We are going to die here.” I insisted that it would be an adventure and that they needed to toughen up. “I think I’ll sleep in the car,” was her only response.
I rolled my eyes, then rolled up all the windows and locked the doors before going to the lobby for check-in. And by “lobby,” I mean “window with bars over the glass and a small slot to slide paperwork and payments back and forth.” My attempts at joking with the surly young man at the counter didn’t go well. I don’t think he could hear me from behind the bullet glass.
But, nevertheless. MAGIC. DISNEY. SPRING BREAK. This was going to work – even if it killed me. And at this point, I was thinking that it might, so as we unpacked the car, I was careful to keep my car key tucked between the knuckles of my first and second finger, pointy-end out like my grandmother had taught me. (Some kids learn how to knit from their grandmother. I learned how to poke a would-be attacker in the eye from mine. She was a special woman.)
Fortunately, at the time, the muggers, rapists, and murderers were otherwise occupied, presumably checking into their own rooms, so the only danger came in the form of four young people stumbling down the stairs in front of us, shouting and kicking beer cans. When my six-year-old pointed out that they were “probably drunk,” I didn’t think to question how she knew what “drunk” was, much less how to identify it on the street. She nailed it. Why argue?
Now, even in a nice hotel, I like to inspect the room. So, when we got to our room, which smelled like an ashtray (and not the classy kind at a gentleman’s cigar club, but the kind that has been sitting in a puddle of beer since 1978 at a roadside bar), I started my inspection. While I was in the bathroom, making sure there were no rats or dead hookers in the bathtub, I overheard Girl 1 leaving a message with her best friend. “This may be the last time you hear my voice, so just know that I died bravely.”
I kindly reminded her that she would not die. At most, there would be a simple stabbing with a high likelihood of survival. Teenagers can be so melodramatic. I then told everyone that they had to keep their shoes on at all times, even in bed.
The next challenge was the ultimate Sophie’s Choice of whether to sleep on the beds with all of our bags around us so they wouldn’t be stolen while we slept or to put the bags on the floor and risk the possibility of fungal infection when we touched them the next day. I finally opted for the floor after realizing that the comforters probably weren’t any cleaner than the carpets. “It’s just one night,” I muttered to myself until everyone finally fell asleep.
The next morning, we were up early, as much for safety as for getting to Disney as soon as possible. And as it turns out, that even in the face of imminent danger, our morning routine doesn’t vary much. Girl 1 yells at Girl 2 for taking too long in the bathroom. Girl 2 tells Girl 1 to shut up, she doesn’t take nearly as long as Girl 1. Girl 1 tells Girl 2 that she is a liar. Girl 3 jumps on the bed in her underwear singing along to cartoons. Mom sits on the bed with her head in her hands, crying quietly and wondering what happened to her youth.
The only variation is that this morning, there was a knock on the door. I opened it with the chain lock in place and there stood the same surly young man who had checked us in the night before. “You guys are going to need to keep it down,” he said. “We’ve gotten noise complaints from the people downstairs.”
I could only stare at him. Noise complaints? About us? SERIOUSLY? The way I saw it, we were the best thing going for this hotel. Thanks to our stay, they could honestly claim that they were a “family hotel – at least that one time.” They should be, at the very least, offering me discount coupons for the Cowgirl Saloon and, instead, I was being told to quiet down. I blinked a few times, shook my head and mumbled something along the lines of, “Ok, sure, WE’LL quiet down,” before shutting the door, chain still in place.
When we finally made our way to the lobby to turn in our key, an elderly couple came in behind us. As I poured some nearly translucent coffee from a lukewarm pot into what I can only hope was a clean Styrofoam cup, I observed them carefully trying not to touch anything as they maneuvered rolling suitcases behind them. They looked every bit as shell-shocked as I felt.
Then it hit me. These had to be the ones who complained. Who else would have been up as early as we were, looking just as tired and slightly scared? The rest of the hotel patrons were surely still sleeping the deep sleep only granted to babies and young drunks.
I wanted to be angry at them…maybe even make a comment about how it was really hard to “be quiet” with three young girls in a hotel room when the floor was nothing more than moldy, threadbare carpet glued on top of plywood. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Here they were, probably on their way to visit friends in West Palm Beach, and like me, had only wanted an easy, affordable place to stay for the night.
So instead, I smiled and said good morning. After all, we were all victims of the same misleading internet photography and Expedia’s lowest price guarantee.
They looked a bit taken aback, but slowly softened and smiled back when they saw I was not carrying a weapon. You could tell they just wanted to get on the road and leave this sordid little experience behind them. I just wanted a clean room and a shower in the magical world of Disney. We weren’t so different from one another after all.
And isn’t that how it goes? We do our best to make things perfect and it sometimes blows up in our face. And sure, my kids are more likely to look back at their childhood and say, “Well, THAT happened,” as opposed to “Wow. That was awesome.” But over the years, I’ve heard them tell the story of the “murder hotel” time and again. And every time, it gets a little funnier. It is in these moments that I feel my lead balloons rise.
Life doesn’t work out the way we plan. Ever. But our kids will be none the worse for it as long as we carry on. The greatest failures often times make best stories. And that’s all we’re really doing as parents, anyway. We’re writing our story – and helping our children to shape theirs. Some chapters will be better than others, but a failure or two along the way? That’s the stuff that makes the story worth reading.