There is this idea within the American Dream, where each generation is destined to do “better” than the previous. While a noble (but potentially selfish) goal, things get a little murky when you try and define “better.” Does better mean more money and in turn more stuff? Perhaps better means more leisure and family time or a lower level of work stress? Maybe better means more (or fewer) children, better nutrition, and a longer life?
The bottom line is this… “better” is subjective and although one can tie nearly all the things above to more money, the availability of money and the conveniences it brings may not necessarily produce the “better” you’re after.
Growing up, my family went everywhere by car. The first time I boarded an airplane I was fifteen and it was a ticket I paid for with my own money.
When I was really young, we would travel to the Adirondacks in NY every summer in whatever station wagon we owned at the time. The layout was always the same: my Dad in the driver’s seat, my mom right next to him and the three kids in the back seat.
My little sister got the hump because she was the shortest.
My dad is a planner, so the night before any departure, he would do a station wagon “dry run” where he would make sure there was a place for everything, and everything would fit in its place.
When we arose in the dark on the day of departure, nothing had been left to chance.
In addition to logistical planners, my parents were very organized financially. For each vacation we took, they would divide cash into a collection of envelopes. They created one for gas and tolls, one for groceries, one for the rental house, and others for any additional categories.
An envelope they never made was one labeled “Food we buy from restaurants along the way.”
We Nazarians were the proverbial “brown baggers” but instead of a paper bag, we had a giant silver metal cooler my mother had acquired using Top Value Stamps. If you don’t know what Top Value Stamps are, well then you’re just too young. Watch the video to see what the hell I’m talking about.
So, as we drew down on the perishables in the house we were about to leave for a week or two, my mother would make a lunch for us all out of whatever was left.
In most cases it was egg salad sandwiches and bug juice.
Egg salad requires no explanation (and for the record I’m not a big fan), but “bug juice” is basically a mix of whatever was left in the fridge, usually a combination of iced tea and various fruit juices, sometimes topped off with some Kool-Aid.
I don’t have a lot of clear memories of stopping for lunch when we went to the Adirondacks, but when I was about nine, we started going to Cape Cod and my dad insisted we would not eat lunch until we’d crossed into another state. To achieve this goal, we traversed the entirety of New York, driving east until we were in Massachusetts.
At the first rest stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike, we would pull in, find a nice grassy spot or a picnic table and eat our lunch. My mom always had a vinyl tablecloth to cover the “less than sanitary” public picnic tables.
While my mom unpacked the lunch, dad would take the boys to the bathroom and sometimes he would sneak into the gift shop and buy a bag of potato chips. When we got back to my mom and sister, dad would hold up the bag and say, “Hey, look what they were giving out in the bathroom.” My mom would give him a sour look and we’d sit down to eat.
Throughout my entire youth, I can only remember a few times we ate at a restaurant. I do remember dozens of stops like the one described above, including one where we were all sitting eating our sandwiches, 200 miles from home, when another family from our town, pulled in right in front of us and proceeded to walk confidently into the restaurant, just yards away.
I never felt like our lunches were anything less than filling and nutritious, but if I’m honest with myself, I was always jealous of the families chowing-down on greasy hamburgers and fries.
In June 2000, a year after my wife and I got married, we drove from western NY to the Outer Banks of NC to a reunion for her family. We had our two-week-old daughter with us, so we drove most of the way through the night.
When we got to the town of our rental house, we discovered we had two hours to kill until we would get in, so my wife said, “Cool, we’ll just find a restaurant and have a long lunch.”
On the surface, this seemed like a completely normal thing, but my hard-wired vacation behavior set off an alarm. My internal monologue screamed, “you can’t go out to lunch, you’re on vacation!” When I resisted, my wife said “when I’m on vacation I like to be, ON vacation.”
From that point forward, my new family never packed a lunch on a trip or vacation.
Now, since never actually means never, this is where the story gets interesting. Seven years and three more children later, my wife and I found ourselves in a little financial pinch. It wasn’t anything too serious, but we were making a real effort to watch every dime.
We were invited to spend the weekend at a beach house owned by a high-school friend of my wife’s, so one Friday, in the heat of the summer, we set out on the seven hour drive to Long Island.
Since we were being so careful with money, I fell back on the travel tradition of my youth and packed us a lunch. As the morning wore on, the kids started asking about lunch and I said something like, “we have a surprise for lunch today.”
When we could hold them off no longer, we happened to be near a town I had once lived in, so I knew a great park right off the highway. We parked the minivan, lugged the cooler out of the car and set up the lunch on a picnic table. I even remembered to bring a plastic tablecloth.
The kids ate their lunch, they played on the swings, they ran around and climbed all over two WWII airplanes perched on concrete stands in the back of the park. After a forty-five minute stop we packed it all up and finished the last 3 hours of the trip.
After some time the financial storm passed and perhaps a year later, we were on another trip with our four children. Along the way we sat down for lunch at a diner. The waitress came, took our order, and as we endured the twenty-minute wait for our meals one of the kids said…
“Remember that time we had a picnic lunch in a park? That was the best.”
Were we actually doing better? Perhaps by some measures yes, but by others not so much. Since that moment in the diner, we’ve adopted a mix of my youthful experiences along with my wife’s. Sometimes we get really crazy and buy food from a restaurant… and then take it to a park.
Just because you have the means to “move on” from something you previously couldn’t afford, doesn’t mean you should. Only you can say what defines “better” for your family, and I’m happy to say we’ve found ours… and it does not involve egg salad.
Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved