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Need help planning your next vacation?

by Jennifer Moses, 14th May 2006

‘The point is that the act of readying myself, my husband and our three children for vacation is so time-consuming, so fraught with anxiety and so weighted with ontological questions about the passage of time and the relationship of self to surroundings that it’s a miracle I survive it.’ So begins Jennifer Moses’ treatise on how to worry yourself out of the house and onto the plane. The question is: will a house sitter wreck or save her home during the four weeks while they’re away?

14 January 2001

WE are packing for our summer vacation in Maine. Correction: I am packing. (My husband, Stuart, a professor of law at Louisiana State University, is hiding out at the office, compulsively checking his e-mail.) Only ‘packing’ doesn’t really describe the ordeal of getting ready for summer vacation – a vacation I’ll desperately need by the time I’m actually sitting on the airplane, and wondering if 10 in the morning is too early to have a cocktail.

I’m a nervous flier – so nervous, in fact, that I give off a kind of greenish glow, like a broken television set, or a malfunctioning nuclear reactor. But that’s not the point. The point is that the act of readying myself, my husband and our three children for vacation is so time-consuming, so fraught with anxiety and so weighted with ontological questions about the passage of time and the relationship of self to surroundings that it’s a miracle I survive it.

Before I can even think about making sure that my son Sam has packed his summer reading books, and that his little brother, Jonathan, doesn’t forget to stash Doggie in his backpack on the morning of our departure – not to mention making enough sandwiches and packing enough cookies to get us through the first, typically peanuts-only leg of our trip – I have to confront the following problem: Do we get a house sitter for the four weeks that we’ll be gone?

Indeed, on the one hand, getting a house sitter means not only that the house will have that lived-in look that tends to scare bad guys away but also that I won’t have to hire a separate person, in the form of a neighborhood teenager, to water the jungle in my backyard.

On the other hand, there’s this: What if the house sitter is a slob and a party animal? What if she invites her friends over to have a drunken blowout in the living room, dribbles pizza sauce on the white ‘club chairs’ that I bought at a hole-in-the-wall antiques store in Alexandria, Va., and forgets to water the plants? What if she – God forbid – forgets to turn off the gas stove, and inadvertently sets the house on fire?

And what if I don’t line up a house sitter, and something bad happens – such as a hurricane, or a tree branch falling on the roof – who will deal with it? What if water begins to cascade through the walls, and ruins the portraits of my great-great-grandparents that hang over the sofa?

Not to mention the mail. We’ll be gone for a full four weeks, and four weeks is a long time to not know what kind of really mean rejection letters I might be getting from the literary magazines I send my short stories to.

Which brings me to the packages. In the absence of a house sitter, any packages we might get while we’re on vacation will sit by the front door, in rain or shine, until one of our neighbors notices it and, taking pity on us, carries it into his own house. But by then whatever is inside the packages will be ruined.

Then there’s the question of the air-conditioning, which may not seem important to people who live north of the Mason-Dixon line, but which looms large – very large – in Baton Rouge, where we live. Do I turn it off and keep the bills low, but risk having everything covered with mould on our return, or do I set the thermostat on 82 or so, and hope the unit doesn’t misfire and cause, for example, an explosion in the attic?

We also need to rent a car.

I BEGIN to make lists. I make lists of lists. I have little yellow stickums all over the house. Cancel newspapers. Buy bathing suit for Rosie, our daughter. Give keys and telephone numbers to neighbors. Turn on timers on lamps. Empty fridge; perishables to Becky? Traveler’s checks. Pay bills. Jewelry to a hiding place. Snacks. Pack: various pharmaceuticals, Hebrew tapes, music tapes for car, crayons and paper for airplane, running shoes, sandals, books, dental floss, Tiger Balm and…why are we going on vacation, anyway? We always get depressed on vacation. All that time sitting in the shade, watching the children frolic. No deadlines. No telephones. In other words, no work. It’s awful.

The winter holidays, in their own way, are just as bad. For example, in the wintertime, I have to worry about the advent of a deep freeze, which in turn would mean that every pipe in our noninsulated house would burst. Or tornadoes spawning from thunderstorms.

It wasn’t always this way. I didn’t always need a full five weeks to plan a four-week vacation, or fret over the fate of my accumulated stuff. Not only did I not have much in the way of accumulated stuff but also I had no children. What I did have was a small, black stuffed elephant, named Elephant, who sat on my bed and never freaked out if I didn’t let him watch TV. Nor did I have a house to put my stuff in. I had a fifth-floor walk-up walk-through apartment in the East Village that my mother didn’t want me to live in.

When I went on vacation, I threw a bunch of underwear, a couple of novels, a pair of jeans and a blouse or two in a canvas bag, turned off the lights and locked the door behind me.

Which is exactly what I did in the summer of 1985, when I flew to San Francisco to meet my boyfriend (now my husband) so the two of us could then drive cross-country in his father’s beat-up light blue VW Rabbit, a car that threatened to break down if you ran the air-conditioning at the same time that you pushed the accelerator past 55 miles an hour. As both of us were young and poor, we did this trip on the cheap. On the very cheap.

We freeloaded off friends and friends of friends and camped out, in sleeping bags, in a tent, something I’ve always loathed. For breakfast, we ate Pop Tarts and bananas. For lunch, we ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Occasionally, we stopped at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, or a truck stop (Stuart prided himself then on being able to ‘pick the really authentic places’), or a diner.

It was a glorious, if often somewhat unhygienic, trip. I can still remember waking up in Glacier National Park in Montana and finding snow on the ground. I also remember being so afraid of what I might find on my way to the shared bathroom down the hall from the ground-floor room we’d rented in a flophouse in Durango, Colo., that rather than risk meeting a few of Durango’s drunks and prostitutes, I chose instead to climb out the window and use the bushes.

‘No way,’ the kids say when we tell them stories of our former selves.

I, too, can barely believe that my husband and I were as footloose as that, as unhampered by children and by stuff – by all those books and clothes and furnishings and linens and china that I can’t take with me, but worry about nonetheless – the curse of middle age. So I make my lists, and my lists of lists, and hope for the best and, once on vacation, watch the weather channel to see whether there are any storms brewing in the Gulf.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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About the author: Jennifer Moses

Jennifer Moses wonders how she is able to actually get out of the house since she became a mother of three. This is her plea for understanding. Since the publication of her book Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom (2004), Moses has garnered an enthusiastic international readership.