When you hit middle age, there are some universal truths you begin to notice and accept, and that goes double when you’re traveling with your parents. Your knees and hips appreciate a recalibrated definition of “adventure” that favors excursions like water taxi rides and birdwatching. And, yes, your hunch is right: You really are turning into your mother (or father) … and maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.
I recently spent six days visiting my parents in their winter snowbird home just outside of Tampa, Florida. Mom and Dad reveled in the tour guide role here in this middle ground – not our Indiana hometown and not British Columbia, where I’ve been living with my kids for years.
It felt strange at first, me being a “kid” again at age 50. It was a rare window when I wasn’t caring for my own kids and my parents, still healthy and mobile, didn’t yet need my care. I could relax. I could play. Without any responsibilities or distractions, I could savor just being a daughter.
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It feels good to slow down a little
Vacating with my parents, I got to experience life at a slower pace. My mom didn’t hesitate to say yes to the hour-long wait when we put in our name at the popular Rusty Bellies oceanfront restaurant in Tarpon Springs. I followed Mom to the Adirondack chairs outside, but soon got restless, feeling like I should be doing something. But she encouraged me to stay put and do nothing, reminding me that I’m always caring for someone in this busy season of life and that it’s OK to rest too. That moment of stillness made room for easy conversation that led to her telling me the story of how my parents first met.
Another day, because we ambled long enough in a mangrove sanctuary, we saw the fins of black-tip sharks and cute noses of manatees break the surface of the water. And since we took our time at the Armature Works green space waiting for the water taxi on downtown Tampa’s Riverwalk, we spotted dolphins playing and got good at deciphering the locals (dogs, laptops, long pants) from the tourists.
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Being together still comes easily
Even though I’ve lived away from my parents for decades, I realized during our week together how well I still know their idiosyncrasies and they know mine. I know my dad will check the forecast before we head out for the day. He knows I’m going to sneeze when he gives me a piece of peppermint gum, and starts laughing when I do. I’m not surprised when my mom stops to hug me as we walk across a parking lot … just because we’re together. And the three of us still find the same things funny, including the mustache baby pacifier at The Dalí (the Salvador Dali Museum) gift shop.
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Midwesterners tend to get stuck in routines, and some of that is what I wanted to break free of when I moved to the West Coast years ago. But on this trip, I found a strange comfort in doing many of the same things we used to do together – church on Sunday, a major league baseball game, and dinner with longtime family friends who still call me by my old nickname.
Mom, Dad and I even visited some of the same places we first went to during a childhood vacation together in 1979. Our history of good memories together keeps hitting me—throughout the trip, I was reminded of who I am and where I came from. I let it sink in, this sense of knowing and being known, of deep connection. Somehow it satisfied a longing I didn’t even know I had.
As an adult kid, I see myself in my parents
In downtown Tampa, we stepped off the trolley at the Ybor City stop into the city’s “Little Havana” neighborhood. Cuban music filled streets lined with restaurants and cigar bars. We popped into one cigar lounge, dark and smoky, and were mesmerized watching busy hands rolling cigars. Dad pointed out all the leaf scrap cuttings on the floor. Mom noted the unique purses made of cigar boxes. At that moment, I realized this is why I am curious and observant, and I felt strangely sentimental. It’s because of them.
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Over lunch at The Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge, a favorite spot overlooking the airstrip at St. Petersburg’s Albert Whitted Airport, we watched small planes and helicopters coming and going. Dad recalled memories of flying with his friend, who had a little Cessna. He laughed and, in his easy way, shared some near-miss flight stories we hadn’t heard before: a downdraft in the Smoky Mountains, losing altitude, and scanning the ground for a flat potential landing space before getting through it. Sitting there listening to him, I saw my own love for travel and adventure.
On this trip, I realized just how much I see myself in my parents. I was a little surprised to realize this fact didn’t make me roll my eyes and make an “I’m turning into my mother” joke. Instead, I found myself smiling and embracing turning into my mother and father, because that’s exactly who I’ve always been.
My parents have always enjoyed watching ocean sunsets. When I was growing up, it was one of those things that happened in the background on our family beach vacations while we were swimming, playing ball, or searching for sand dollars. This time around, though, the sunset was the main event. I noticed my parents and other locals about their age planning their evenings around it, bringing a chair, and even going to a special spot on Indian Rocks Beach where a retired guy brings his trumpet and plays “Taps” to celebrate the daily setting of the sun.
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It was a surprising moment of joy, and Dad captured it. He has always loved photographing ocean sunsets on vacation, and now he gets to do it for six months every year as a snowbird. I used to be bored looking at sunsets, but now I find myself sending him my own sunset photos from home in Canada. My daughters do the same with me. I guess a sense of awe and wonder is hereditary, too.
These moments are pure gold (and fleeting)
Traveling with my aging parents, I realized how lucky I am, but also knew this could be our last trip together, just the three of us. I couldn’t help but reflect on how fragile life is and how precious these moments together are. My parents are still together, in good health, and have mobility. I can’t think of anyone my age at 50 who is in the same situation with their parents.
At a Clearwater Beach souvenir shop on my last day of the trip, Mom bought us matching blue sweatshirts we both liked. I think it was her way of marking this time together with a tangible reminder. As she handed me mine, I pushed away the thought that this might be the last time we get to vacation like this and replaced it with gratitude.
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On the drive to the airport, Dad launched into his usual sort of closing paragraph that he does at the end of every visit. He mentioned the highlights of the week and asked about everyone else’s favorite memories from our time together. Then he shifted to what we wanted to do next time. I smiled, realizing I do this closing paragraph, too, when I’m saying goodbye to my girls.
I cried at the goodbye like I always do with my parents, then boarded my flight and took my seat next to a young mom with a baby girl on her lap. I cooed and made silly faces the same way other women did when my girls were young and I traveled alone on trips home to see my parents and felt the sweet weight of this full circle moment.
How a vacation with my aging parents changed my whole perspective on travel originally appeared on FamilyVacationist.com.
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The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY. FamilyVacationist.com and TourScoop.com are owned and operated by Vacationist Media LLC. Using the FamilyVacationist travel recommendation methodology, we review and select family vacation ideas, family vacation spots, all-inclusive family resorts, and classic family vacations for all ages. TourScoop covers guided group tours and tour operators, tour operator reviews, tour itinerary reviews and travel gear recommendations.