Writer Caren Osten Gerszberg discovers the importance of one-on-one quality time with your child.
I’ll never forget the first trip I took alone with my mother. I was seven years old and felt as if I’d landed in heaven – no big brother or dad nearby with whom to share her. For one whole week, my mother guided me through Paris, her native city, and on a side jaunt to the grand chateaus of France’s Loire Valley.
There was this one cloudy day still vivid in my mind, when the two of us made a picnic lunch along the bank of the Loire River. My mother laid out a cream-colored cotton blanket, and on it arranged a spread of crusty baguette, ripe fresh peaches, some smelly cheese I wouldn’t touch and bar of dark chocolate. She drank wine; I drank jus d’orange.
In the middle of our picnic, a small group of men – wearing thick, black, thigh-high rubber boots – approached. They were local fishermen, and they came to invite me to see the fish swimming in the river. While my mother looked on with an excited smile, one of the men scooped me up into his arms, carrying me like a baby on its back, and slowly waded into the river to give me a glimpse of the fish they were there to catch. Would I let some strange man pick up my child and walk into a river? I’m not really sure. But now at age 45, I can attest that my mother’s free spirit and sense of adventure were seeping in.
That day in the Loire was the first of many memories, born out of trips – from Arizona and Israel to Las Vegas and London – I shared alone with my mother. With each and every journey, my collection of mother-daughter experiences and adventures expanded, and our relationship deepened in new and unchartered ways.
With my husband’s encouragement, I set out early on to recreate a similar ritual with each of my own three children: Nicole, 16; Emily, 14; Simon, 9. The time away – one-on-one – has fostered eye-opening opportunities that are nonexistent with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Between after-school activities, harried weekends and frenetic dinners, I crave the time when we can wander foreign streets, hike unknown trails or simply brush our teeth in unison without the honking horn of a school carpool. And with each trip, no matter the distance or number of days away, I discover new and evolving characteristics in my children.
When Nicole was 11 we traveled together to France to visit my brother, who was living there at the time. Wanting a chance to have some time as a mother-daughter twosome, we first spent several days in Avignon, staying in a beautifully restored hotel that had once been a monastery. We visited the Pope’s Palace and the Pont d’Avignon, the city’s famous bridge – and the subject of a French song I’d often sung to her as a baby – making frequent detours to pastry shops, and navigating the winding pedestrian zone lined with shops. She was a travel partner extraordinaire.
One evening back at the hotel, while I was plotting our next day’s agenda and Nicole was flipping channels on the hotel room’s TV, she paused at what seemed like a German MTV station. We looked at one another, and moments later were dancing crazily on the bed to the blaring sounds of German rock ‘n’ roll. We flailed our arms and jumped on the bed until we fell down laughing. A serious and sensitive young woman at home, my own daughter was revealing a silly side I’d rarely seen. Ever since that night, when that silly side uncovers itself, I think back to our private dance party and smile at the thought of our giggling together like a pair of old pals.
Now my younger daughter, Emily, is so frequently loud and silly – and unlike her mother – that a trip to London on our own was literally a chance to get to know her better. We took in a matinee of “Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang” and hopped on and off a London city tour bus, taking in sights like Buckingham Palace, the Royal Mews and Harrods department store. She was a helpful and eager travel companion, and a delight to be alone with – no big sister or dad nearby with whom to share her.
While preparing for the trip, I booked us a teatime table at the Ritz Hotel, hoping to give Emily a true taste of an old British tradition. We dressed up – umbrella in tow – and walked hand-in-hand from our hotel to the Ritz. Emily, then nine-years old, was mesmerized by the chandeliers and fancy decor, but when the waiters brought out a three-tiered platter of mini-sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, her face went sour.
“What is this?” she asked, as if she’d been presented with a plate of Brussels sprouts. “And I don’t even like tea.” With that, I responded in my best British accent that this is what English people eat at teatime, and there would be cookies to follow. She responded in her own best accent that she would indeed taste a few things (she was not typically adventurous on the food front). For the hour that followed – and which became the highlight of the trip for me – we nibbled, sipped and schmoozed, all the while putting on the best English accents we could muster. Nearly five years have gone by since that trip, but it hasn’t kept Emily and I from breaking into English accents every now and again.
When Simon turned eight two Septembers ago, I promised him a weekend trip with me – alone – to Chicago, also a chance to visit one of my oldest friends who is like an aunt to my kids. We woke up early the morning after Halloween, and my well-seasoned traveler happily rolled his suitcase through LaGuardia Airport and onto the plane. Sitting side by side, he read his book; I read mine. We were as comfortable with this exercise as an old married couple. But his age came through when he asked, “How many minutes ‘till blast off, Mom?”
Once we touched down in the Windy City, Simon’s first and only desire was to see Wrigley Field. We stopped near the stadium and got out of the car to take pictures, and later that day spent a couple of hours walking through the Shedd Aquarium to marvel at its wondrous exhibitions on ocean life.
The following day, we walked through a park along Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful autumn day, with temperatures reaching into the 60s, and the entire city seemed to be outdoors taking advantage. When I saw a man throwing a football with his two young sons, I wondered whether Simon would want to play with them. “Naaaah,” I told myself. He’d be embarrassed if I even asked. But minutes later, Simon pointed to a group of 20 adults playing touch football, and asked if he could join their game. In complete shock of my typically shy son’s boldness, I nodded yes.
He ran over to the group, and I sat on the grass watching. My son, my baby, was standing in a huddle with a bunch of adults he’d never laid eyes on. During almost every play, he ran down the field, shouting, “I’m open, I’m open!” or running with his two arms – outstretched to stop the offense, as if he were playing recess on the blacktop with his buddies at school. At the end of the game, the men and women on both teams gave him high-fives and he walked back to where I was sitting. My shy son wasn’t so shy. And maybe he never was.
In our private travel time, as just a pair, each of my children and I continue to discover things about one another. While we explore new cities, navigate undiscovered routes and try foreign foods, we are placing ourselves in new settings as parent and child, and bound to build lasting, special memories. Time and circumstance don’t allow me to travel with my mother alone anymore, but she gave me a gift – along with a collection of memories – and I am now giving that gift to the next generation.
As a matter of fact, last December Nicole made a holiday wish list with the usual things you’d expect from a teenager: clothes, computer accessories, some jewelry. But when I saw the words “a day alone with mom in Costa Rica,” where we’d soon be taking a family trip, I knew my plan was working. She liked the gift.
Editor’s Note: Caren Osten Gerszberg has worked in journalism since 1986, when she began her career at Mademoiselle magazine. She has since worked for Mirabella, Rolling Stone and French Glamour. While continuing to freelance, Caren has taught magazine writing at NYU’s school of journalism. She lives with her husband and three children in Westchester County, New York. Visit Caren at her website: carenosten.com.